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^3¥imm a>.^ i ^> iHiHt' **IM««*«4 tf 

This is for Mgel)Ti Wood, who supported the project in every 
sense o£ the word. And it is for Jaines R. Carlson, the most compre- 
hensive intellect I have encountered. 


I would like to thank Richard L. Green for chairing this 
dissertation and for the close reading and textual advice which has 
helped give it form. I also want to acknowledge L. L. Zimmerman, 
who sparked my interest in aesthetics. To Winified L. Frazer, David 
L. Shelton, and Thomas B. Abbott go many than]<.s for seriang on m 





Notes , , 7 



Bentley's Pragmatism and its Relation to Politics ... 11 

Bentley's Background in Literary Criticism 23 

Bentley's Critical Philosophy: Relativism 40 

Notes , 48 


Creativity: The Nature of the Dramatist's Work .... 56 

Art and the Work o£ A.rt: Imitation and Expression. . . 65 

Form. . , 72 

The Function o£ Art 78 

Ideas in Art: How the Pla)^vright Thinlcs 86 

Realism 92 

Aesthetic Experience 101 

Notes 114 


Theatricalism 122 

Acting 130 

Interpretation and the Director ..... i , . 143 

Scene Design and Lighting 151 

Notes 157 




Miller and Williams: T\to ATierican Artists 163 

Problems in .American Pla>'\vriting , . 177 

Innovation on the .American Stage,. 193 

Notes 202 


Notes. . , , , . 215 

BIBLIOGRAPHY . , . , 216 



Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate Council of the 
University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the Reauirements for the 

Degree of Doctor of Philosophy 



Donald H. Cunningham 

June, 1981 

Chairman: Richard L. Green 
Major Department: Speech 

This study analyzes the sources and qualities of Eric Bentley's 
critical theory, a broad and sophisticated realism v^hich emphasizes 
the sociological and psychological convergence of drama and life. 

Chapter I examines Bentley's relationship to pragmatism, socialism, 
and Freudian psychology as they shape his humanist, positivist, and 
pluralist position, his essential anti -dogmatism and faith in the power 
of the mind to process the facts of experience. Bentley is linked with 
various literary critics, including John Crowe Ransom and F. R. Leavis, 
to show influences on his emphasis of the concrete closeness of literature 
to daily life. Bentley's view of aesthetic judgment is related to rel- 
ativism, where judgment proceeds from the concrete examination of a 
value situation rather than from rules or subjective ijirpressions. 


Chapter II analyzes Bentley's dramatic theory in light of the 
categories used in modem aesthetics, focusing on the i\Titten drama as 
art worlc and the playv^Tight as artist. In Bentley's view, the play- 
WTight explores experience through a struggle with form and content, 
unifying the two in a play that is both an imitation of life and an 
expression of the artist's vision. Form is used to feature content, 
and a well-formed structure is the playwright's major concern. The 
function of the drama is to give pleasure and to instruct; it has the 
social purpose of vitalizing an insensitive (bourgeois) society. Ideas 
and ethical content are important to this function and enter tlie drama 
both through the formulation of m\ intelligible structure and tlirough 
focus on ideas as subject matter. 

Bentley sees realism as the best form for the drama's necessary 
depiction of a dialectic of forces representative of ethical issues. 
Non-realistic elements will enter realistic works as a concomitant to 
the forming process of art. Bentley's ultimate defense of realism lies 
in drama's unique presentation of human essence in living human form. 
The audience's engagement with this form depends on some sense of 
detachment in observation, though the spectator will always view realis- 
tic characters in a play with the same identification and empathy common 
in life. 

Chapter III deals with Bentley's treatment of performance, 
the presentation in the theatre of the pla)^wright's commanding vision. 
The arts of the theatre are form for the drama as presented and are 
empty without it. He is suspicious of the power of the theatrical to 

VI 1 

overcome the dramatic, of form over content. He recognizes acting as 
the central art of the theatre, and as an art, it cannot be merely 
naturalistic. Neither does the actor display his ordinary personality, 
but should develop an aesthetic personality. The director gives proper 
form to the drama, malsing manifest the qualities of the play. He may 
add or subtract when the play is deficient, but he should not take on 
the function of play\\Tight with extraneous interpretations and formalist 
flourishes. Stage design has the aesthetic function of forming an 
expressive image in theatrical space, but lighting has only a functional 
purpose, that of exposing the actor. 

Chapter IV examines selected ^^e^^f Republic reviews as examples 
of the applicability of Bentley's theory to specific i^'orks. Focus is 
on Bentley's relationship with American theatre, his discussion of its 
form/content problems and the play's correspondence with social concerns. 

The Conclusion summarizes Bentley's vision of the drama as an 
expression of rational man's search for ethical value within a compre- 
hensive social order and the need to continue this search in light of 
existing value systems. 



Few would dispute Eric Bentley's position as one of the major 
dramatic critics in post World War II America, a position solidified 
by more than twenty- five years of publication about the theatre. Even 
before he emerged as a drama critic, Bentley had shovvn promise as a 
student of literature and intellectual histor)^ at Oxford and Yale and 
had published frequently in magazines like The Kenyon Review , His first 
published book, A Century of Hero Worship , -*• was a study in the history of 
ideas and essentially his Yale dissertation. 

He soon turned to dramatic criticism and produced The Playwright 

as Thinker , "" a book which caused some furor and a good deal of negative 

reaction because its original introduction called Eugene O'Neill m^erely 
a "promising" playwright. Although the book contained a far more devastat- 
ing criticism of tlie commercial Broadway theatre, the reference to O'Neill 
was seen by som.e as an. attack on .American theatre not only at its popular 
base, but also at its lofty pinnacle. The purpose of the book, Bentley 
has recently said, "ivas an attempt to dignify the theatre beyond what 
it normally claims, to say that it is a part of culture, that it is, 
among other things, an intellectual institution- -or is at its best.""^ 
Bentley maintained that a play could seriously be about something, and 
this conviction brought the criticism that he was interested in a cerebral 
theatre, whereas he was really only extending to theatre the same close 
and serious examination which was commonly afforded to poetiy and fiction. 

Following in the path of a critic whom he admired, F. R. Leavis, 
Bentley's next book was the re-evaluation of the reputation and work of 
an out-of- fashion author, Bernard Shaw. Bernard Shaw is a thorough 
critical analysis of Shaw's philosophy and dramatic works. 

The next book, In S earch of Theatre , is a collection of articles 
he wrote while studying the varieties of European and American theatre 
first hand, often working as a director or translator, and thus expanding 
his knowledge of the tlieatre. It demonstrates an increased awareness 
of theatrical embodiment while it retains and refines his commitment 
to realism. 

During these years Bentley also formed a close association with 
Bertolt Brecht, becoming, for some tijne, Brecht's chief American promoter 
and unofficial press agent. The association was mutually beneficial, 
and Bentley was affected by Brecht's theories. 

Bentley's years as the theatre critic for The New R epublic (1952- 
1956) gave him a regular forum to discuss the American theatre and the 
occasion to review hxmdreds of productions. These reviews have been 
collected in The Dramatic Event and H'hat Ts Theatre? along with several 
additional essays. 

Perhaps his most influential work during this period and later 
has been his frequent editorship of play anthologies whose selections 
and introductions have helped to reshape the content of drama and theatre 
courses in the universities and, one suspects, have had an inpact on the 
programs of the expanding number of repertory theatres in America. 

Bentley's most thorough study of the theatre. The Life of the 

DraiTia, is an examination of theatrical theory which relates, at every 

turn, the complex connection of the art to human psychosocial factors. 

Both it and his next book, TTie Theatre of Commitm.ent ^ (v'hich contains 

the seminal essay on political theatre) , as well as his previous volumes 

of essays and reviews, have remained almost continually in print, and 

one encounters his works in class syllabi in American colleges every- 

vihere, suggesting continued wide interest in the whole of his work. 

In his most recent collection of essays, Theatre of War,^ he makes the 

transition from dramatic to social criticism complete, including essays 

about social and political life as well as dramatic criticism. 

Mr. Bentley's prominence in academic circles --and subsequent 

influence- -mark him as an important figure for study. His popularity 

suggests that his ideas and sensibilities have touched many. Even 

were Bentley not popular, had he written, for example, during a time 

less receptive to a critic of realism, a time more willing to ignore 

the critic who goes against the grain, the cogency and penetration of 

his analyses would make him worthy of study. He is of particular 

interest to students of criticism and theory because he has occasionally 

probed into the background of his o\nti and others' critical work to try 

to make clear same of the assumptions behind the specific instances. 

Though Bentley's work is used as a basis for much critical study, 

there have been no major studies of his theory, save his inclusion in 

Will Brewer Grant, Jr. 's Varieties of American Tlieatrical Criticism , 

1945 - 1969 . Mr. Grant's comparative study of four critics analyzes 

their theories along the lines of M. H. Abrains' concept of the "prag- 
matic" approach to criticism and develops Martin Gottfried's distinction 
between "left wing" and "right wing" orientation in criticism. In 
labeling Bentley as a "left wing" critic, Grant works from definition 
and only suggests a philosophical or political base to a critic's 
orientation. The present study will examine in some detail the develop- 
ment of Bentley 's critical position out of the intellectual and critical 
climate that was his training ground. 

In addition to this vital background material, this study will 
provide a more extensive analysis of Bentley 's dramatic theory than 
that of Grant's necessarily limited comparative study. Using the major 
areas of analysis common to the philosophy of art, I will thoroughly 
examine sources, standards, and implications of Bentley 's rational and 
realist aesthetic. 

Two assuirptions ground the methodology of this study. The first 
is that a search for theory in the ^^^ork of a critic is a valid preoccupa- 
tion. Mirr>- Krieger has spoken of the inevitable relationship betiveen 
experience and theory: 

. . . each of us carries with him, as he turns to experience a 
poem, some distillate of his earlier experiences of poems that 
acts as ana priori guide to his expectations, his interpretations, 
and his judgments. Conscious or unconscious, infonned or uninfoimed, 
systematically worked out or ad hoc and piecemeal, this distillate 
still sei-ves him, in effect, as his literary theory^- -even if it 
leads him to a disdain of the very^ notion of theory. 11 

If something akin to theory develops even in the general consumer of a 

poem or a play, then it is even more the case in a sophisticated critic 

who has examined his experiences in detail. 

The second assumption is that Bentley's critical output may be 
considered as a fairly homogeneous body of \<rork where its theory is 
concerned. That is, I will be less concerned with the evolution of a 
theory, but will consider the major direction of Bentley's theory to 
have been set by the time of the publication of The Playi^rrjght as Thinker . 
When Bentley tells us in several introductions that his conclusions can 
and do change from time to time, I take it to be a publication of his 
pragmatic and situational orientation, that he is adapting and adjusting 
his theory to contain new experiences. Generally, the major body of 
his theory does not change, but merely expands to include new ideas. 
At times Bentley m.11 accept a contradiction to his general theory, such 
as his conclusion that there will sometimes be a need for outright 
propaganda in the theatre. Except for an occasional essay in which he 
examines his own theory- -the essay "l*Jhat is Theatre" is the best 
example- -Bentley maintains a commitment to perception over philosophy. 
Still, he is in close touch with the precepts which guide his aesthetic 
judgments, and they remain, throughout the work, consistent in the main. 

This study will draw, therefore, from the major critical works in 
no particular order. The central importance of The Life of the Drama, 
his major work on theory, is unquestionable. Yet its ideas are extensions 
of earlier work and are echoed in later. At any rate, the developmental 
aspect of the theory, where it does appear, will be noted by this method. 

Chapter I of this study will trace the influence of the philosophy 
behind his early published works, pragmatism, as it affects his view of 
of art. It will then examine five critics whom Bentley has identified as 
injfluential on his development, among them Johji Crowe Ransom and his 

New Criticism. Finally, Bentley's relativist aesthetic will be described 
in detail. 

Chapter II will analyze the various elements of Bentley's realism 
as they apply to drama and art in general . Attention will be paid to 
creativity and aesthetic experience as well as to those areas internal 
to the art work such as form and cognitive content. Chapter III will 
follow with an analysis of Bentley's specific attitudes towards theatrical 
art: acting, directing, script interpretation, and theatricality. 

Chapter IV will offer a more specific look at several critical 
pieces in order to examine Bentley's reactions to different kinds of 
content in relation to form. The Conclusion will summarize Bentley's 
dramatic theory and offer an evaluation of his work as a critic. 

Let it be clear from the outset, however, that this study is 
basically positive in its appraisal of his criticism. Though Bentley 
has blind spots in his appreciations, he is aware of them and has ex- 
plained them with well -articulated theory. And in practice he is always 
affirmative about the power of the theatre to move and serious about the 
importance of the art. His theories are essential to review at this 
point, in the light of the literature about theatre of the late 1960 's 
and early 1970 's which explains an art in which language, script, logic, 
planning, traditional unity, and reality have been pared down, fragmented, 
or actually stripped away. It is hoped that Bentley's theories will 
continue to stand alongside those of recent theorists such as Richard 
Schecliner and David Cole in explicating a total aesthetic of the theatre. "^^ 


1. Eric Bentley, A Ceii^uiy of Hero Wor^^ (Philadelphia: 

J. B. Lippincott Company, 1944) (Hereinafter referred to as Century.) 

2. Eric Bentley, The Pla>^^'right as Thinker (New York: Harcourt 
Brace ^ World, Inc., 1967) THereinafter referred to as Thinker .) 

3. Eric Bentley, private interview, Gainesville, Florida, 
February, 1978. 

4. Eric Bentley, Bernard Shaw (New York: W. W. Norton g Company 
Inc., 1976) ^ ^' 

5. Eric Bentley, In Search of Theatre (New York: Vintage Books, 
1957) (Hereinafter referred to as Search.) 

6. Eric Bentley, The Dramatic Event (Boston: Beacon Press, 
1954) (Hereinafter referred to as Event ); Eric Bentley, UTiat Is Theatre? 
(Boston: Beacon Press, 1956) (Hereinafter referred to as Wiat.J^ 

7. Eric Bentley, The Life of the Drama (New York: Athenetm, 
1957) (Hereinafter referred to as Life .) 

8. Eric Bentley, The Theatre of C ommitment (New York: Atheneum, 
1967) (Hereinafter referred to as Commitment .) 

9. Eric Bentley, Theatre of War (New York: The Viking Press, 
1972) (Hereinafter referred to as WarTJ 

10. VJill Brewer Grant, Jr. , Varieties of .American Theatrical 
Criticism , 1945 - 1969 (Ph.D. dissertation, Cornell University, 1970.) 

11. Murry Krieger, Theory of Criticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins 
University Press, 1976), pp. 5-6. 

12. Richard Schechner, Public Domain (New York: Avon Books, 1969); 
David Cole, The T heatrical Event (>liddletovm. Conn.: Weslvan University 
Press, 1975.) 


We discover beauty just as we discover the physical properties of 
things. Training is needed to make us expert in either line. 

William James 

Differing points of viexsf about art may be related to differing 
beliefs about the world, to "intellectual, political, and social affini- 
ties." Tliese affinities, affected at the deepest level by universal 
conceptions or philosophy and more directly by aesthetic training, may 
be examined as the basis of a particular art theory. Eric Bentley's 
realist, rational, and humanist view of the drama may be traced to two 
such influential areas. One is comprised of his philosophical alle- 
giancewhich centers broadly on the pragmatism of William James and in- 
cludes a compatible politics of democratic socialism. Tlie other consists 
of his study of and work in the field of literary criticism during the 
1930 's and 1940 's. 

In the follox</ing these areas are separated for purposes of dis- 
cussion, and it may appear that pragmatism has been the guiding force 
in all of Bentley's studies. Certainly the basic precepts from prag- 
matism which he appears to have internalized by 1944 have been influential, 
but it is also likely that pragmatism functioned as a synthesizing 
factor for a number of impulses already strong in the young student who 
came to Yale from Oxford just as war was beginning in Europe. Bentley 

^-•rti t.L-i^ 

was an undergraduate during the "Marxist decade," which was also a time 
o£ upheaval in the literary world, and it is reasonable to expect that 
he was well-informed about the most progressive philosophical, political, 
and literary theories at an early age. 

It is therefore likely that philosophy and literature interacted 
in Bentley along several developing lines of belief which are best 
described by pragmatism so that pragmatism's humanism, empiricism, 
pluralism, and relativism dovetail with the emphasis on realism, 
methodology, the concrete, and the social perspective on art •u'hich 
are important to his aesthetics. Certainly these ideas can be related 
to Bentley 's studies in literary criticism with C. S. Lewis, to his 
critiques of T. S. Eliot and I. A. Richards, to his association with 
John Crowe Ransom and the New Critics, and to his encomiastic investiga- 
tion of the Cambridge (England) critic F, R. Leavis. 

Pragmatism's essential empiricism and focus on the facts of 
experience speaks in favor of realism and the actual, the concrete. 
It also allows the study of art, especially literature, as a kind of 
social document, welcoming the adoption of scientific methodologies from 
fields such as psychology, sociology, and anthropology in literary criticism. 

Tlie pluralistic universe and humanist basis of value in pragma- 
tism send man on an extended value search; pragmatism is a methodology 
for guiding the individual through a world of actual experiences. Bentley, 
follomng F. R. Leavis, praises the methodological critic who decides 
through anpirical testing and pragmatic reasoning what judgments about 
art are most valid. That these judgments are relative to individuals and 
societies, based on empirically derived standards and not on absolutes. 


defines Bentley's relativism which is the focus of the last part of 
this chapter. 

In pragmatism, all life is the accommodation of sensory experience 
in a wild and diverse universe; art, which offers an experience specially 
designed to be both complete and potent, is in the mainstream of living.'^ 
Thus Bentley sees its purpose for the individual as active and meaning- 
ful (to the intellect as well as to the emotions, which are, in fact, 
linked) rather than as passive and purely emotional as in I. A. Richards. 

For Bentley, art must be engaged with society through lived 
experience, and pragmatism's ant i- authoritarianism and growth -orienta- 
tion lead to the political side of Bentley's realism. The search for 
concrete and vivid experience in art becomes intertwined with ethics for, 
as Stephen Pepper says, "an artist seeks out social issues because they 
reflect conflicts and are sources of vivid realization of experience."^ 
The best art can hardly avoid some ethical content, for it is a deep 
reflection on the nature of the world. 

Bentley's focus on the real and concrete lead him away from the 
mystical, the murky, and the abstract and towards the specific, the clear, 
and the crisp. His desire for social engagement and eye for ethical 
content lead him to con_sider the effete, the snobbish, the sentimental, 
the escapist, and the commercial beyond the pale of true art. 

Like pragmatism itself, however, Bentley's realism is neither 
narrow nor exclusive. It is a broad avenue into which many ideas and 
styles may run. Methodologically he draws from psychology, sociology, 
and other areas as well as the central "close to the text" foimalism of 
the New Critics. 


The purpose of the present chapter is to examine the development 
of a realist aesthetic of the character suggested above. Part One will 
focus on Bentley's pragmatism as it appears in some early works, primarily 
Centur)^ of Hero Worship . Bentley's socialism will be related to and 
discussed as compatible with his pragmatism. Part Two will examine 
Bentley's relation to the five literary critics mentioned above, with 
whom he has had close association or about whom he has written. Part 
Three will examine Bentley's relativism as it appears as a methodology 
of aesthetic judgment, perhaps the clearest indication of the influence 
of pragmatism on his criticism. 

Bentley's Prag-;Tiatism and Its Relation to Politics 
IVhen Eric Bentley recently said t?iat his major philosophical 
interests since leaving Yale in 1941 have been "in Marxism on the one 
hand and Freudianism on the other," he implied that his early interest 
in pragmatism had come during the ^Titing of his dissertation which was 
later published as Century of Hero Worship . Certainly the book opens 
the door to a continued interest in socialism and psychology, an interest 
fed by the m.ethodology of pragmatism. This book, a study of the intellec- 
tual movement of Heroic Vitalism in such diverse artists and thinkers as 
Thomas Carlyle, Friedrich Nietzsche, Richard Wagner, Bernard Shaw, Oswald 
Spengler, Stefan George, and D. H. Lav,Tence, offers pragmatism as an 
answer to the philosophic dilemmas of the concerned intellectual in the 
modem world. Pragmatism helps Bentley s>TTipathize with the Heroic 
Vitalists' quest for quality in a democratic and bourgeois world, ruled 
by the marketplace. At the same time, it leads him to abhor the extreme 


individualism and authoritarianism o£ their conclusions which, in the 
worst of them, consist of a denial of democratic freedom in modem 
society and a rush to the airy and reserved world of the hero, the superman. 
The book offers a synthesis of the Heroic Vitalists' concerns v/ith those 
of democratic liberalism, centering on the question of leadership: how 
does the democratic state develop leaders of quality, mien of superior 
intellect and talent? "The great question," says Bentley, "is whether 
democracy is in every respect anti-aristocratic." His conclusion is 


implicit in the statement, "Aristocracy is one of the goals of democracy." 

Along the way to this conclusion, Bentley offers a vast analysis 

of the lives, times, and works of the authors studied. He demjonstrates 

formidable powers of psychological analysis and, at every hand, touts, 

in a piecemeal fashion, pragmatism. In his review of the book, Kenneth 

Burke called for a chapter which 

would have considered systematically the philosophic points that 
are continually being introduced en passant . Particularly the 
scattered remarks on pragmatism make one wish that the author had 
told us just what key propositions, in his opinion, characterize 
this movement which he evidently considers of signal importance. . . .8 

With the whole of Bentley 's critical work in mind, this can be done to 

some extent, for the pragmatism, far-reaching in its influence as I have 

suggested above, is centrally exhibited and related to the politics of 

the book. It is difficult to tell how extensive a study Bentley made of 

IVilliam James, less so of John Dewey, for he never elucidates pragmatism 

but merely refers to it (as Burke suggests above) . Yet perhaps the 

major strokes of Jamesian pragmatism are all the more strong for having 

touched such a responsive chord in Bentley in so elemental a form. 


Certainly pragmatism forms a core of faith for Bentley in the 
book, for he is dram to belief even though he is skeptical of it, 
especially absolute belief. William James stands out in high relief and 
is the most-quoted philosopher in the book (except for those who have 
direct influence on the figures of the study, such as Hegel and Schopenhauer.) 
Bentley often relates James and Bernard Shaw,whom he identifies as another 
pragmatist. As a working system, pragmatism is often seen in political 
terns as well as in more general terns. Since the book is about ideas 
as they impact on the world, it is necessarily politically oriented; the 
general precepts of pragmatism often fuse with their political importance. 

Bentley sees the central coherence of pragraatism ' s flexible meth- 
odology in the unification of activity and value, i.e., the development 
of value in a world which is man-centered and diverse. This he makes 
clear in a simmation of the centralizing and synthesizing aspect of 
pragmatism in modem ethics: 

In the matter of Heroic Vitalism, James and Shaw renresent a 
position between the two contemporary extremes, the' extremes 
reached by Tolstoy and Nietzsche who found the new world dis- 
gusting and saw only the alternative of outright paganism or 
outright Christianity- -activity without values or values with- 
out activity. James and Shaw united activity with values They 
represent what is positive in science but not what is hajipered 
by hard and tast categories and narrow deteminism. They are 
■positivists" m a broad sense but utterly opposed to mechan- 
istic explanations of non-mechanical phenomena. They give 
status alike to Baconian experiment and to reason but surpa'^s 
the earlier rationalism and empiricism in the firm yet elastic 
method of pragmatism. ITieir theory of truth is relativistic 
but they know that what is relatively true is not necessarily 
mere subjective fantasy but can be objective and worthy of a 
fiery faith. 9 ^ 

Here, within a huirianistic framework, are the positivism, empiricism, and 
relativism which are central to pragmatism's world view. Value emerges 


from human activity; it does not exist as absolute doctrine, whether it 
be the extreme of a supernatural or rationalist doctrine. Bentley sup- 
ports pragmatism's humanist debunking of pure scientific determinism. 
Neither science nor reason can absolutely designate reality since reality 
is neither a unit nor an abstraction; reality depends upon human definition. 
Within this view, truth must be relative, but the relatively true, tested, 
examined, and held up to standards, may be taken seriously and objectively 
(though not absolutely) . Since relative truth is continually being dis- 
covered, progressivism, the developmental nature of pragmatism, is in- 
herent in the formulation. 

This is the general view of pragmatism appearing in Century. Four 
important ideas are repeatedly dealt with in this fomulation: 1) a basic 
empiricism in ^onderstanding nature and man; 2) a pluralistic view of the 
world with an abhorrence of dualities and absolutes; 3J a humanist and 
relativist view of value; and 4} an em.phasis on mind or intellect in 
processing experience. Let us examine how these ideas appear in the 
book and else^^/here. 

Bentley 's empiricism is perhaps most clear in his psychological 
analysis of the growth of the idea of Heroic Vitalism in the individuals 
studied, Bentley 's research into personality is based on scientific 
methods, a rough Freudianism, and faith in the analytic powers of the 
rational intellect. Like Freud, he is concerned with mental conflict 
often of unconscious origin. Ihe developmental pattern of conflict and 
resolution is common in Bentley' s manner of thinking. He offers his psycho- 
logical analysis not as shallow literary criticism, but as a key to under- 
standing the relationship between experience and ideas: 

I--I-I ■'■■- I-- 


By this time we have lost patience with the psychoanalytical method 
of criticism -ivhich says: Shelley -KTote that because of his Oedipus 
complex, or: Carlyle worshiped heroes because of his indigestion. . . . 
However, we miist not ignore the fact that biography is just as essential 
a part of cultural histor>' as economics or philosophy . . . one can 
show why a particular person's experience called for a certain view 
of life; one can show how an idea grew in an individual. ... 10 

Psychology is a natural science. It offers the possibility of in-depth 
investigation wherein the investigator is able to discover the truth about 
ideas by examining them at the source. The essential conflict-resolution 
pattern by which men may grow is, at once, Freudian, Hegelian, and prag- 
matic. IVhere there is imbalance, balance will be sought. Opposite sides 
of an issue will be brought together so that the good in each side may 
be kept in the resolution, at least ideally. 

Bentley's tone in Century is that of the enthusiastic but objective 
researcher. Tne Freudian enphasis on sex is prevalent, as are the Freudian 
repressions and substitutions that resolve conflict. He links Carlyle 's 
authoritarianism to his probable sexual impotence, and he discusses the 
impact of Stefan George's repressed homosexuality on his poems and followers: 
"IVhether George . . . would confess to homosexuality is irrelevant except 
insofar as unconscious homosexuality is subtler in its manifestations than 
the conscious sort." 

It is the prevalence of unresolved conflicts in character, often 
dealt with in their writing, which Bentley suggests led to so many illib- 
eral conclusions on the part of the Heroic Vitalists. The most common 
conflict- -perhaps he would consider it a basic conflict- -Bentley finds is 
that betv-^een "masculine -feminine," and it may have various sources. In 
Carlyle he sees it as stemming from the loss of Christian faith and its 
replacement by a faith in science which later develops into an unresolved 


duality o£ character, the old feminine never quite dominated by the new 
masculine. Bentley reads much o£ Carlyle as an unconscious attempt to 
work out this conflict. He finds similar conflicts in Nietzsche, George, 
Lawrence, and Wagner, linking conflict to literar>- and artistic production. 
Conflict, for example, is seen as the basis of Wagner's art: "In his 
music-dramas, Wagner confronts himself .""''" 

Bentley displays a prodigious capacity for analyzing personality 
as a method for understanding biography, history, and ideas. Psychology 
is central in his study of man. Though his psychology is influenced 
strongly by Freud, he does not demonstrate absolute faith in Freudian 
theory. He remains pragmatic in his methodology. Psychology gives 
Bentley a method for studying development, and the active component of 
psychology, psychoanalysis, promises results that also ring true to prag- 
matism: understanding and new levels of awareness. Psychology also helps 
fix the dialectical pattern in his thinking, crucial to a dramatic view 
of the world. 

Bentley make- it clear that his abhorance of both dualism and dog- 
matism are grounded in his pluralist \^'Drld view. He calls Carlyle 's 
suppressed belief in Heaven and Hell "a naive and dangerous dualism which 
cancels the utility of Carlyle's incipient pragmatism. ""^^ Belief in a 
dualism is by definition an acceptance of extremes, an over-simplified 
polarity which does not take a greater diversity and the possibility of 
many centrist positions into account. Dualism is thus the parent of an 
absolute view: "when the heaven-hell pattern pervades a man's thought 
it makes him an extremist, a man of insane ruthless reasoning, one ignorant 


of the great civilizing principle of the golden mean.""'"'^ Faced with an 
"either . . . or" argument or situation, Bentley ivill prefer some synthesis, 
central or combined position. He applauds the "both . . . and" pattern 
in Shaw, a bringing together rather than a splitting apart, inclusiveness 
rather than exclusiveness. 

Bentley clarifies his philosophical and political stand against 
dualism and for pluralism when he links Romanticism with pragmatism. 
Bentley 's view of Romanticism is mixed, separating its world view from 
its aesthetics. He favors the Romantic concept of man forging value in 
a diverse world, fighting to keep the human spirit free from the stul- 
tifying conventions of society. This is much like pragmatism. He does 
not accept the dualism of the Romantic view of art in which the artist 
reaches out from the imperfect world to capture the eternal ideal. 
Bentley approves of Romanticism's view of nature, not its metaphysics; 
he is impressed with its political rather than its aesthetic content. 

Bentley criticizes as anti-Romantic those politically conservative 
thinkers, like T. S. Eliot, because their "values are fixed, and fixity 
is their faith, their touchstone, and their panacea. ""^^ Such fixity is 
inimical to a pluralist view of the world with its capacity for novelty, 
change, and growth. He finds the hidden desire of the anti-Romantic is 

a faith that is systematic and certain, a society that is hierarchic 
and static. 'wTiat is it they most dread? The world of contingency, 
flux, and diversity. As there is an inner connection between Roman- 
ticism and pragmatism, so there is between neoclassicism and philo- 
sophic idealism. 17 

Again, Bentley is not speaking here about art but about the real wrld 
and politics. Romantic reality was pluralistic while classical reality 
was fixed by a higher absolute. 


For Bentley, then, the pragmatism of William James is "the culmina- 
tion of Romanticism" and James is "the man who made articulate what the 
earlier Romantics were groping after ... the man who built into a 

philosophy and a method what had previously been a series of hints, images, 

and intuitions." ' He quotes James in an impassioned statement about the 

unification of ideal and real in a world where absolute laws, abstract 
concepts, and arguments based on absolute knowledge do not pertain: "Dra- 
matic unities; laws of versification; ecclesiastical systems; scholastic 
doctrines. Bahl . . . those who do insist that the ideal and the real 
are dynamically continuous are those by whom the world is to be saved. "'''^ 
For Bentley, values are not pre-ordained in a world that is diverse, 
wild, and full of possibilities; therefore, man becomes the center of the 
pragmatic value search. He makes this clear when he compares what is 
good in Nietzsche's theory of value to James: 

The positive upshot of the theory of value which we have looked 
at is that values are "free," are created, are man made. Thus 
the dignity of which man had been deprived by eighteenth -century 
science and Darwinism alike is restored to him by Nietzsche, as 
by William James. ... 20 

This is the humanist base of pragmatic value. It is relativist in that 

man made values are not taken to be mere subjective desires, but are 

derived from beliefs which are tested and developed by pragmatic reasoning. 

This explains the crucial contribution of the rational mind to pragmatism 

and its search for truth. Rationality also carries a hint for a social 

basis for value, rather than the purely individualistic one in Nietzsche. 

I'v'hereas the Romantics tended to distrust the mind and society as limiting 

to the free spirit, Bentley- -and pragmatism- -put much faith in rational 

inquiry and the social view. 


Bentley sees the rational mind as the key for opening man's aware- 
ness of and contact with the real world. This corresponds to his concept 
of man, "the animal that thin _-,," as central to the universe. He crit- 
icizes the Heroic Vitalists for their leaps past rationality, and he 
cites Shaw's highly critical analysis of the Heroic Vitalists' illusions 
about heroism and courage as an example of how pragmatic realism may 
rightly debuak airy nonsense. This debuhking does not, however, lessen 
individual human value, for "to say so would be to reject the striving 
after self -conquest by pragmatic reasoning which has been the major 
endeavor of mankind during the past two hundred years. "^"^ Pragmatism is 
a method of using the rational mind (which, however, is not unconnected 
to the emotions), and it is the Heroic Vitalists' emphasis on the "primacy 
of the 'Unconscious'" xvhich Bentley soundly criticizes, saying that it 
produces a theory of knowledge "in which intuition is too naively exalted 
above reason. . . . " 

It is Bentley 's pei^vasive rationality combined with the pragmatic, 
socialist, and progressivist sense of the individual's connection to the 
group that underlies his criticism of the Heroic Vitalists and leads to 
the thesis of Century: that within the context of a democratic society 
intellectual capacity is functionally useful, and individuals of intellect 
should be raised tr a position of leadership as a service to society as 
a whole. This constitutes a form of elitism, but it is not rigid and 
objective. The intellectual is not bom, he is developed, and that Vvhich 
sets him apart from society is exactly -what should lead him back to it, 
for his engagement with society is not a debt to be paid, but ideally 
comes from a desire to serve. The model is that of democratic socialism 


wherein responsibility and sharing are the cohesive forces o£ society. 
Respect for individual liberty is balanced by the needs of the collective, 

Thus the pluralism and humanism of pragmatism ground, or are 
compatible with, Bentley's politics. Bentley's liberalism is easily 
explained by pragmatism, in contrast to modes of thought which are 
authoritarian. The liberal mind is pluralistic, dealing with diversity 
through a pragmatic process of validation. The illiberal mind tends to 
be dualist, understanding only one path as opposed to another: it must 
be this or that, with one generally labeled good and the other bad. A 
vast and diverse universe must be reduced to comply with the dualism, and 
the dualist must take extreme positions which may be the basis of dog- 

Pragmatism guides Bentley in giving importance to both the freedom 

of the individual and the needs of the collective. His Marxism is not 

antitl^etical to pragmatism, at least where it does not take on the cast 

of an absolutism. For, as we have said, Bentley lacks the religious turn 

of mind necessar>^ for complete faith in systems such as Freud's or Marx's. 

Bentley has stated his caution with Communism as it is practiced by the 

Party in various countries, even while he remains a socialist: 

Still, there is, I believe, another constant in my viewpoint 
besides liberalism: I am a socialist and have been for thirty years. 
If my attitude to the Coimunist Party has varied, that, surely, need 
not be viewed as purely my problem. Not being a member of it, nor 
otherudse awestruck, I propose to judge each of its policies on its 
merits. I shall be ant i- Communist if that means I shall on occasion 
oppose measures which this Communist Party or that advocates; I shall 
not be ant i- Communist if that is to imply that all decisions of all 
Communist Parties are bound to be wrong or that "Communism" is a good 
najTie for all that is bad and is therefore the opposite of a "freedom" 
which embodies all that is good. 23 

Tills attitude would not be sufficient, in the eyes of most Communists, 

to admit Bentley into the group. Certainly his attitude toward Communist 


policy is pragmatic. One must presume that his socialism is gradualist 
or Shavian in foim. 

And yet the connection between Marxism and pragmatism is consider- 
able. Bentley sees Marxism as compatible with democracy, as when he speaks 
of "the vast strength that came to democratic ideas from Maiaism."^"^ 
Bentley 's great concern for the individual's responsibility to society 
is certainly Marxist. Pragmatism and Mai-xism have a similar world view. 
Both are essentially realist and empiricist. Both are progressive and 
positivistic. Both extoll the importance of education. Many pragmatist 
philosophers have seen the two as compatible, though Jolm Dewey is said 
to have considered Marxism a "theology. "^^ Stripped of its revolutionary 
nature based on the ijTiperatives of historical materialism and the class 
struggle, a nature which at times fosters complete ethical and moral sub- 
jugation to the propagation of communism, Marxism has much in common with 

Bentley in essence grafts the pragmatic method onto his socialism, 
judging the Party's policies individually. He is not a Marxist critic 
of the dogmatic sort, bending every aesthetic judgment to fairly narrow 
and absolute social-moral requirements. In the general view, however, 
Bentley 's aesthetic is not far distant from the Mai^ist as described by 
Lucien Goldmann: 

. _ . . the dialectical aesthetic sees every work of art as the expres- 
sion ... of a world vision; and . . . as we would ex-pect, this vision 
also expresses itself on numerous other philosophical and theological 
levels, as well as on that of men's everyday actions and activity, 
ine essential criteria by which the aesthetic of dialectical material- 
ism judges the value of any expression of a world vision are the inner 
coherence of the work of art and especially the coherence between fom) 
and content. It also, however, has another criterion, correspondinc^ 
on the philosophical plane to that of truth, and which enables a hier- 
archy of values to be set up between the different aesthetic expres- 
sions of world visions. This criterion is ivhat the artistic 


theories of dialectical materialism call the "degree of realism," 
impl)dng by this the richness and complexity of the real social 
relationships which are reflected in the imaginary world created 
by the artist or i\rriter. 26 

Bentley would agree with both criteria, at least to the point iviiere the 

"hierarchy of values" would be fully fixed and dogmatically applied. 

Bentley ronains pragmatic and pluralist in the face of dogma. Also- -and 

this is critical--the political hegemony of the Communist Party seems to 

lack the possibility for growth which Bentley associates with conflict. 

His wariness as regards Communism is understandable, as is his sympathy 

for the concepts of equality and social justice which are central to 

both Marx and William James. 

Such is the philosophical base of Bentley 's realism. Like the 
arch-realist Aristotle, whom he resanbles in philosophy, Bentley looks 
for the depiction of social reality in dramatic art and finds "thought" 
or intellectual and ethical/value content to adhere to such a view. This 
is the thrust of Bentley' s early pragmatism, and it is well supported by 
his studies in psychology and socialism. 

As a drama critic, Bentley stands in close relationship to his ov^n 
thesis in Century . His book is about the responsibility of the intellectual 
to society, and it is clear that he considers himself to be among those 
about whom he \\Tites, The role of a critic is that of an intellectual 
who takes on a guiding or leading function in society. The man of superior 
intellect shares his taste and insight with the public in order to better 
the quality of art ivtiich is consumed. Century supports with an extended 
theory the line of work chosen by Bentley. 

His most basic guide remains his anti -dogmatism, the rejection of 
rigidity in looking and thinking. Like William James, he is an optimistic 


thinker. Bentley's is a mind well suited to enter the arena of dramatic 
criticism: pluralistic, conplex, serious, analytic, untrammeled by emotion- 
alism or absolutism, and sensitive to conflict and resolution as a mode 
of thinking. 

Bentley's Background in Literary Criticism 
In accord with his methodological orientation and penchant for 
pluralism, Bentley has not followed one school of criticism or had one 
particular mentor. He has said of his early studies in criticism: "I 
was getting very close to different critical points of view: Lewis, then 
later Leavis and of course Ransom. I tried to learn from them all without 
giving complete allegiance to any."^^ TTie five critics studied here do 
not represent all those whom Bentley has digested and from whom he has 
presumably learned. The three mentioned above, however, are, by his own 
admission, central and crucial. They are, in addition to the direct 
influence they have had on Bentley, representative of a climate of 
literary opinion and practice in which Bentley's ideas and opinions 
developed. If Lewis, Leavis, and Ransom are three critics with whom 
Bentley has had a great deal of contact, Eliot and Richards are tvro major 
critics with whom he could not avoid some confrontation. He has ivritten 
about all five, though less about Ransom who may, in a manner unanalyzed 
by Bentley him^self , have influenced him most. 

This study of the five critics v,dll focus on the development of an 
active, realist literary theory. This is to say that Bentley relates to 
ideas in these five critics which are similar to those then developing in 


his philosophical outlook. The nature of man and society, man's expres- 
sion through art and literature, and the relationship of art to society 
are the general areas to which the discipline of literary criticism 
offered specific insights. Bentley was predisposed to follow views 
which emphasized seriousness, meaning, objectivity, intellect, and the 
connections among various phenomena. 

As a developing realist, he has been especially concerned about 
the manner in which literature is a way of knowing the world of reality 
and the manner in which ideas, values, and emotional qualities enter the 
literary work. This interest has led him toward views of the objective, 
cognitive, and concrete in literature. As a developing contextualist, 
he has been concerned about the effect of the literary work on its public 
and about the nature of aesthetic judgment. ^^ This has reinforced his 
realism and social consciousness by directing him toward ideas of an 
active aesthetic experience involving both mind and emotions. It has 
also led him toward aesthetic judgments which are based on relativist 

The general concern for the value of art lies behind all these 
interests. Bentley identifies the need to re-establish the importance 
of literature for a new age as the background of the broad movement 
which John Crowe Ransom called the New Criticism. ^^ The continued rise 
of democracy and the breakdown of rigid class structure in post- industrial 
Europe and America- -to some extent the same pressures that led to the 
hero-worship of the Heroic Vi tal is ts- -removed literature from its special, 
aristocratic niche and led to widespread commercialism and ignorance. 
In a scientific age, science was seen to have a monopoly on truth; liter- 
ature was relegated to the status of either a pastime or a convenient 


vehicle for moralizing. This denigration of the arts accounts for what 

Bentley sees as the pedagogical fervor of the New Critics: 

All were concerned to assert that literature was not less important 
in this unliterary age tha:i formerly, to point from the many things 
literature is connected with to the thing that it is, to defend, 
as Eliot put it, the integrity of literature. 30 

The New Critics' primary impulse in defending the "integrity" of 

literature was to consider it as a separate way of knowing the world, 

separate from other areas such as entertainment and morals, with which it 

had been closely related. As Eliot put it, "the problem appearing in 

these essays, which gives them what coherence they have, is the problem 

of the integrity of poetry, with the repeated assertion that when we 

are considering poetry we must consider it as poetr}^ and not another 

thing." The close consideration of the literary text as literature, 

that is, as a way of knowing reality, gave rise to the tendency to focus 
exclusively on the fomal coherence of the literary work which has be- 
come the earmark of the New Criticism, narrowly defined as those critics 
identified by Ransom or working under his banner. (Bentley, in the 
introduction to The Importance of Scrutiny , seems to use the term more 
broadly to indicate most informed modem criticism.) The New Criticism 
has been called "the most influential method of our time," though it 

hardly constitutes a specific method other than extremely close textual 

reading which has been called "formalism." 

Perhaps the major thing to which literature, in the view of the 

New Critics, had been wedded was morals. We have seen how moral and 

ethical values may become involved in art, but this is not to say that 

literature and morals are one. The propensity of the scientific mind, 


however, was to relegate to science all cognitive knowledge and to art 
all affect. Along with this came the relegation of literature to the 
realm, not so much of morals, but of moralizing, as a method for trans- 
mitting a particular moral view. This is very different from the open 
value- search through experience which is a modem, orthodox (and prag- 
matic) view of art. Bentley notes the influence of the French critic 
Remy de Gourmont on Eliot: "L'art est incompatible avec une preoccupa- 
tion morale ou religieuse."'^"^ The reaction against moralism is influen- 
tial on the New Critics' efforts to focus on the work and not on periph- 
eral factors. 

The New Critics sought to establish the importance of literature 
as a separate way of dealing with the world's evidence. Ransom himself 
developed his theories along the lines of the cognitive importance of 
literature. The interest in science of the period, indeed, the vast 
extension of the methods of science into the study of man, was also 
directly influential on New Criticism (broadly defined) in the infusion 
of methods from fields such as anthropology, psychology, and sociology 
into literary criticism. Modem criticism has been called "The Armed 
Vision" because of its " organized use of non - literary techniques and 
bodies of knowledge to obtain insights into literature ," 

All five of the critics studied here share at least some of the 
concerns of the Nexv Criticism. The following arrangement is roughly 
chronological, based on the order in \%hich Bentley apparently studied, 
knew, or wrote about them. 

C. S. Lewis 

Bentley's mentor at Oxford, Lewis was a specialist in ^fedieval 
and Renaissance literature, a Christian, an author of fantastic tales, 
a philosophical idealist, and a bit of a mystic. Very little of this 
seems to have interested Bentley. Levv-is was, however, committed to the 
study of meaning in literature and, in addition, probably influenced 
Bentley's early ideas about the relationship between psychology and 
literature. Bentley wrote, under Lewis, his first book-length manuscript, 
a study of the use of psychology in modern criticism. The ideas in this 
treatise, including a negative view of I. A, Richards, parallel Lewis' 
evaluations. It is also probable that the acrimonious debate and argu- 
mentation vhich prevailed at Oxford and around Lewis had a lifelong 
effect on Bentley. 

Lewis considered literature to be a content bound up with an 
artistic fonri. He said that "taking art as an expression, it must be 
the expression of something: and one can't abstract the 'something' 
from the expression." The something which is expressed in the literary 
art v/ork relates more clearly than expression in other arts to the world 
outside the work: "The first note of a s>'mphony demands attention to 
nothing but itself. The first word of the Iliad directs our minds to 

anger; something we are acquainted with outside the poem and outside 

literature altogether." Literature, being made'.np of language, is 

bound to a relationship reality. This sets language arts apart 

from the arts in general and constitutes a common sense semiotics in which 

the real world is an important component of "meaning," 


Lewis, in the fashion of New Criticism, debunks critical writing 
about the author: "A book ought to be judged on its own merits rather 
than as a means \\'hereby one steeps oneself in the personality of the 


author." Lewis criticizes the simplistic return of the Freudian 
critic to a few basic motifs (usually sex) as reductive and of little 
use to criticism. Even if we could show, he says, that the enjo>'ment 
of Book IV of Paradise Lost was 90 percent sex and 10 percent interest 
in gardens, 

that 10 would still be the subject of literary criticism. For 
clearly the 10 is what distinguishes one poem from another- -the 
90 being a monotonous continuum spread under all our reading 
alike and affording no ground for the distinction we actually 
draw betiveen banality and freshness, dullness and charm, ugliness 
and beauty. 39 

Lewis responds positively, however, to the unveiled mystery of 
Jungian myth as related to literature in Maud Bodkin's seminal Archtypal 
Patterns in Poetry;: "A much more civil and humane interpretation of 
myth and imagery is, however, advanced by Jung, and one which in the 
pages of Miss Bodkin ... has found some interesting critical expressions."'^'^ 

Bentley's book on psychological criticism follows Lewis' evaluations. 
Bentley says, 

I think my youthful point of view was that Richards and Freud were 
much too limited, and the answer was Jung. I was not to think that 
later. Maud Bodkin's book had appeared, and it opened up a lot of 
literature to me; she was the heroine of my treatise, 41 

In later years Bentley, as he says, turned away from the somewhat mystical 
Jung and followed Freud's more empirical hypotheses, developing and using 
an extensive Freudian vocabulary in a manner unlike the reductive sim- 
plicity of that kind of Freudian criticism \<hich Lewis rightly depreciated. 


Dissent and debate were seen by Lewis as a method for testing 
ideas, and so he felt that discussion of an ideological sort could 
only strengthen a grasp on truth. It could firm one's conceptions or 
even lead to s>'nthesis. Bentley says that Lewis loved debate and that 
he once saw Lewis and Richards debate their views on literature. "Lewis 
loved the process," he says, "though Richards was not really up to the 
cut and parry of debate." 

It is possible, then, that Bentley's positive attitude toward 
conflict and its necessary presence in a pluralistic, groivth- oriented 
world was learned at Oxford. His fondness for debate and dialectic, of 
ideas confronting ideas, seen in his admiration for playwrights like 
Shaw and Brecht and his mistrust of ideological vagueness, could have 
been easily spawned by the atmosphere of debate and argument at Oxford 
in the 1930 's.^-^ 

Bentley certainly developed away from Lewis in the decade after 
he left Oxford in 1939. In the 1948 preface to Scrutiny he criticizes 
Lewis for "a very unsatisfactory conception of two central matters: 
tradition and taste." TTiat is, Lewis reveres the old for serious 
study (tradition) and leaves new literature to be read as one may, out- 
side the area of serious inspection. Like a good pragmatist, Bentley 
sees tradition in a relationship between past and present and emj^hasizes 
the need to deal critically with modem literature in order to engage 
one's self with contemporary life. 

T. S. Eliot 

Bentley admires Eliot's early criticism, that of the 1920 introduc- 
tion to The Sacred Wood in Mh.ich he proposed "to halt at the frontier 


of metaphysics or mysticism. . . ." By 1928, when Eliot had 'passed 
on to a larger and more difficult subject . . . that of the relation of 

poetr>' to the spiritual and social life of its time and other times," 

Bentley disapprox^es . His coTnment on Eliot's shift is terse: "I do 

not think Eliot's dealings v/ith the 'larger and mere difficult subject' 

have been very satisfactory." Eliot's heavily Christian and increasingly 

reactionary politics are the obvious source of Bentley 's displeasure. 

Bentley damns Eliot's politics, on the philosophical level, 
because his pragmatism conflicts with Eliot's narrowly neoclassical, 
idealist standards. Yet the difference in philosophy seems to bother 
Bentley only when Eliot applies these standards to society and not when 
they are applied to literature. Bentley accuses Eliot of confusing his 
artistic gifts with social-critical gifts, leading to a grave error, 
"the infusion of aesthetic standards into history." Certainly, however, 
Bentley applies his omx aesthetic philosophy (imbued as it is with social 
concerns) to history and society, ivhat Bentley is perhaps saying is that 
he continues to appreciate Eliot's poetry while disliking his philosophy, 
more apparent in the social criticism than in the creative work. This 
may be because Eliot, a gifted poet, achieves such crisp and imagistic 
poetry whereas his philosophy seems to Bentley to be dogmatic, inflexible, 
elitist, and insensitive. 

The difference may relate to Eliot's basic insights into poesy, 
developed in the early criticism. There he defines his famous concept 
of the "objective correlative," whereby emotion enters poetry through 
the specific and the concrete. Poetry is not mushy, it is not gush, it 
is not the direct cry of emotion: 


The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by 
finding an "objective correlative"; in other words, a set of 
objects, a situation, a chain of events ivhich shall be the formula 
of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, 
which must terminate in sensory experience are given, the 
emotion is immediately evoked. 48 

l\hatever personal reasons Eliot may have had for the articulation of this 

concept, it demands concrete presentation in the poem, even for symbols 

of the non-concrete. This is meaningful for Bentley because it begins 

to link emotion--and ideas- -to specific objects which may be examined 

by the intellect. In a similar manner Eliot suggests that the concrete 

is used in literature to deal with ideas: "The poet can deal with 

philosophical ideas, not as a matter for argument, but as a matter for 


The objectification of emotion and ideas becomes a key concept 

for Bentley who quotes WilliaTi James to show that the aesthetic validity 

of Shaw's moral content lies in its concrete presence: 

William James . . . hit upon one of the essentials of Shaw, to 
wit, "the way he brings hom.e to the eyes , as it were, the difference 
between 'convention' and 'conscience. . , . '" The difference between 
convention and conscience is certainly a moral matter, but Shaw is 
a concrete moralist . . . he is a genuine dramatist in that he 
brings his matter home to the eyes. ... 50 

I. A. Richards 

Richard's studies in semantics and aesthetics led him to question 
the "objective" nature of the concrete in literature and literature's 
relationship to reality and truth. Convinced that only science and 
philosophy used language to accurately describe reality, he developed 
an aesthetic based on "synaesthesis," his term for the h)T)notic state 
of emotional balance and harmony reached by individuals as a response to 


art works. He also coined the term "pseudo- statement" to distinguish 

literary language from scientific; science makes actual statements, 

while literature does not. The aim of science is to refer to reality, 

while the aim of literature is to affect the emotions: 

A statanent may be used for the sake of the reference , true 
or false, which it causes. This is the scientific use of language. 
But it may also be used for the sake of the effects in emotion and 
attitude produced by the reference it occasions. This is the 
emotive use of language. 51 

Richards says that "Poetry ... is the supreme form of emotive language."^ 

He considers his theory to serve literature by cutting it free from the 

restrictive world of science: "A pseudo-statement, as I use the term, 

is not necessarily false in any sense. It is merely a form of words 

whose scientific truth or falsity is irrelevant to the purpose at hand."^^ 

Freed from a responsibility to truth, literary art can become supremely 

important to the affective human being. 

The concept of a literature that does not say or mean anything, 
based on a serene and wholly subjective aesthetics, did not find favor 
with even the young Eric Bentley. In an article taken from the thesis 
he wrote at Oxford, Bentley viciously attacked Richards for the subjective 
and non- scientific nature of his account of literary value: "It is in- 
consistent. It is inapplicable to criticism. It is bound up with 
unsubstantiated psychology." He attacked the root concept of 
"synaesthesis," offering his avm view of aesthetic value: "But, it 
might be argued, it is the change in consciousness that one enjoys and 
values, not what one changes to." 

Bentley 's active, vigorous concept of aesthetic effect conforms 
to his developing pragmatism and its orientation toward change, gro\\1:h, 


and vivid experience. It is also in the tradition o£ Aristotle's 
catharsis which posits the attainment of a balanced state as a final 
result of aesthetic experience but emphasizes the arareness of the change 
as primary to the ex-perience. The spectator is to feel something 
strongly, to move from one state to another, to achieve a kind of en- 
lightenment through change. 

Bentley attacked Richards at his weakest point, his burdensome, 
subjectivist aesthetic which separated literature so decisively from 
the real world that it left it empty, 

John Crowe Ransom 

There are quite striking similarities between the literary theories 
of Ransom and Bentley ^ho was Ransom's younger collegue at The Kenyon 
^^^^g^' for several years. Foremost among them is Ransom's strong belief 
in the cognitive importance of literature and his avo\ved intellectualism 
in aesthetics based on literature's objective, meaningful nature. 
Ransom believes that poetic discourse is ontologically different from 
science, but no less cognitive in its meaning. 

Ransom's criticism of Richards is, therefore, similar to Bentley 's 
in its source: Richards' subjective emphasis. He says that "Richards 
is an anti-intellectualist aesthetician, and for him the characteristic 
activity of the emotions and attitudes is out of sight of their cogni- 
tions." Ransom opposes this by stressing the "cognitive object" which 
is the distinctive, concrete presence in which the quality of the poem 
resides: "The distinctiveness that we think of as attaching to an emotion 
belongs really to the object towards which we have it."^'' 


Ranscm separates poetry from science as a way of loiowing reality 
by noting that science has a narrow and directive structure concerned 
only with logical relationships, argument, hypotheses, and reasoning. 
It is abstract and general. Poetic discourse, on the other hand, is 
broad and more like the rarld of reality, showing a "diffuseness of 
interest," and focusing on concrete objects and situations. Poetry 
contains both kinds of discourse: a logical argument called "structure," 
and a localized particularity known as "texture," which "testifies to a 
diffuseness in the constitution of the world which we are undertaking 
to know."^^ 

Thus poetry is not only real, it is more real than science, for 
it contains the concrete situations of texture and is not limited to the 
abstraction of logical structure. Like pragmatism, poetic discourse 
focuses on the actual, the real, the situation. Ransom uses other terms 
and holds other ideas which correspond to pragmatism. He speaks of 
science as the "totalitarian state" and poetry as the "democratic state" 
(for its diversity of elements). He is no idealist, seeing good poetry 
as coming, not from the Romantic quest for the eternal, but from the 
poet's ability to describe the world of reality more completely than the 
scientist. Following his belief in the cognitive nature of poetr}^, he 
notes that "intellectual standards" should not be waived for poets. 
For Ransom, poets are thinkers who deal, in the foim of poetic discourse, 
with ideas: 

If a poet is a philosopher, ex-plicitly or implicitly, treating 
matters of ethical or at least human importance- -and it is 
likely that he is that- -the discussion of his "ideology" may 
be critical in every sense in which one may be said to criticize 
systematic ideas. ... 59 


Here is a concern that is germinal in Bentley's aesthetic: that the 
author is making a statement through his vision of reality, though 
the statement is implicit in the material. 

Indeed, the influence of Ransom on Bentley seems pervasive, 
especially where the importance of intellect in the literar>' work is 
concerned. Life proceeds in the marmer of art rather than science; thus 
art is closely related to life and lived experience. "Fiction and 
drama, indeed, are explicit and systematic representations of the actual 
occupations we have in life," says Ransom. ^'^ 

F. R. Lea vis 

Bentley says that in the efforts of the New Criticism to teach 
a broad public about the importance and quality of literature, "no one 
has played a larger part than F. R. Leavis."^"^ Bentley's enthusiasm 
for Leavis runs deep. It is not only prompted by the desire to expand 
awareness and effect change, which corresponds closely to Bentley's 
pragTr::itism, but it is also guided by Leavis' close relationship to all 
of the critical ideas prominent in Bentley: concerns about literature 
and society, about meaning, realism, and the concrete in literature. 
Leavis stands out not so much as an influence on Bentley, but as a 
representative of the pragmatic way of thinking as applied to literary 
criticism. Leavis displays strong elements of liberalism, humanism, 
and empiricism, and it is easy to see how Bentley, working with back 
issues of Leavis' journal Scrutiny, would find Leavis an exemplary 


Scrutiny , begun by Leavis in 1932, was similar in many respects 

to Ransom's Kenyon Re^dew for its interest in both art and political 

culture. Leavis announced his liberal humanism by stating the scope 

o£ ideas he found in the term "modem affairs:" 

... a play of the free intelligence uj^on the underlying issues. 
This is to desiderate a cultivated historical sense, a familiarity 
•with the "anthropological" approach to contemporary civilization . , . 
and a catholic appreciation of the humane values. 62 

The connections befaveen art and society are, for Leavis, complex and 

interwoven in a manner Bentley appreciates. Literature is about man 

and society; it is concerned directly with lived experience. It may 

have both direct and indirect influence on society: direct through its 

value content and indirect through its application to society's awareness 

of culture in general. In turn, society has an effect on literature by 

defining the climate in which the artist produces. Bentley certainly 

subscribes to Leavis' statement of the general connections between art 

and society: 

It goes without saying that for the majority neither the 
present drift of civilization nor the plight of the arts is a 
matter for much concern. It is true there are many who are 
interested in one or the other without seeing any connection 
between them; but it is only a small minority for whom the 
arts are something more than a luxury product, who believe, 
in fact, that they are the "storehouse of recorded values" and, 
in consequence, that there is a necessary relationship between 
the quality of the individual's response to art and his general 
fitness for a humiane existence. 63 

The specific connection between art and society comes through 

literature's direct concern for actual experience. This is mirrored 

in the critic by a corresponding concern for the art work as a direct 

experience, unmitigated by philosophical considerations. That art and 

criticism focus on actualities and experience gives shape to Leavis' 


essential pragmatism. Thus Bentley calls him the "anti -philosophical" 
critic as a positive statement, for the generalities of philosophy may 
hamper the artist in his approach to direct experience and may dull the 
perception of the critic by ossification into rigid rules or dogma. In 
the case of the artist, Leavis ' anti -philosophical stance calls for 
immediacy and actuality. In the case of the critic, it calls for relativ- 
ism in aesthetic judgment, which shall be examined in the next section. 
Bentley applauds Leavis ' methodology which takes precedence over 

If there is a bed-rock of doctrine, an absolute, at the bottom of 
his work, it is not a philosophical system, but a doctrine as to 
procedure, a methodological absolute. . . . The assumption is 
that literature means something, that the meaning or content 
IS bound up with the style or form, and may therefore be discovered 
by the trained sensibility. 64 

This formulation contains the primary elements of Bentley 's view of 

literature: the literary work has a meaning, inherent in the nature 

of language, and this meaning is closely tied to the form, Both 

cognitive and affective sides of man are combined in literature, and both 

are involved in tlie "sensibility," which he defines as "a discipline 

of the intellect and the feelings taken- -as they must be taken in the 

arts- -together. "^^ 

Though Leavis is wary of philosophy, there is an aesthetics 
inherent in his methodology as he applies it in his work. The philosopher 
Rene Wellek, commenting on Leavis' Revaluations , which Bentley says 
"reappraised so many English poets that the book as a -whole amounts to 
a new view of the English poetic tradition," calls that aesthetic' 
realistic in its focus on social reality and the concrete and insen- 
sitivity to philosophical idealism in poetry. 


Leavis, in a reply to Wellek about the position of philosophy 

vis a vis poetry, offers a statement of his theory, and it is clear that 

the theory grows out of the contextualist concern for the realization of 

vivid experience directly exhibited in the work: 

. . . traditions, or prevailing conventions or habits, that tend 
to cut poetry- in general off from direct Amlgar living and the 
actual, or that make it difficult for the poet to bring into 
poetry his most serious interests as an adult living in his own 
time, have a devitalizing effect. 67 

By this Leavis is not denying the importance of philosophical idealism 
to a poet; he is merely defining the arbitrary infusion of philosophy, 
often by a pre-conceived system of s>'mbols, as outside the nature of 
poetry. This indicates an extensive realism along the lines of Bentley, 
Poetry may deal with philosophy, but only through the depiction of 
concrete experiences from "direct vulgar living." Poetry cannot be 
written to illustrate philosophy in any direct way. The poetic (or 
aesthetic) function of language is to offer concrete experiences from 
life which have "a directly evocative power." l^Tiat the poet believes 
is not the major thing to be gotten from a poem. Hence a poet's s>'mbols 
must speak through their concrete presence and not through a scheme. 
Leavis' interest in actuality, adult experience, integration 
with a time and a society, and the unification of form and content 
corresponds neatly with Bentley 's interest in the rational and in- 
tellectual as they appear in the real . Perhaps even more appealing to 
Bentley is Leavis' methodological approach and critical relativism. 
For Leavis, the critic makes contact with art works guided by mind and 
emotion, testing his reactions and looking for their source in a relation- 
ship between artistic form and the meaning he senses in the work. The 


essentially pragmatic nature of this quest is appealing to Bentley, as is 
its unification of the intellect and the emotions in process. 

I have traced Bentley 's relationship to these critics at some 
length to show the various influences leading toward a realism which 
gives prominence to objectification and intellect, the cognitive in man, 
but not at the expense of the emotional. Bentley 's pragmatism stands as 
the unifying factor, bringing intellect and emotion together both within 
the literary work and as components of the sensibility which confronts 
the work. That is to say that pragmatism acts as a reasonable barrier 
against extremism. Leavis' concern for the "play of the free intelligence" 
is prominent in Bentley both as an aesthetic method for criticism and as 
a general approach to life. 

Bentley has made choices, and these are indicative of the empiricist 
pluralist, and progressivist nature of his pragmatism and socialism. 
He has chosen optimism over pessimism, engagement over withdrawal, relativ- 
ism as a rational position between dogmatism and subjectivism, rationalism 
over irrationalism, democracy over authoritarianism, naturalism over 
idealism, groT\l:h over stasis, the Romantic world view over the Classic, 
relativistic belief over nihilism, and moderacy over extremism. These 
are his positions, pragmatically worked out and presumably in flux. 
Belief may not always be continuous with criticism, especially in a 
relativist, but it generally shows a direction and offers counsel to 
the perceptions. 

Bentley 's realism is a result of his background and his interests, 
and it is easy to see how the two are related. 


Bentley's Critical Philosophy: Relativism 
We are now at a point where v^^e may safely indicate the general 
features of Bentley's critical philosophy. Bentley says that "judgment 

is the summation of criticism. And some degree of objectivity is pre- 

sumed by it." This desire for objectivity, combined with an abhorance 

of dogmatism (or absolute objectivity) and an equally strong distaste for 
the anarchy and "sub-himan chaos" of subjectivism, leads him (naturally) 
toward the pragmatist value theory of relativism. ^^ Relativism seeks to 
bring order to the realm of judgment l^'hile remaining pluralist. Its 
roots in pragmatist humanism are central to its flexible methodology. 

The major elements of relativism which relate to Bentley are these: 
1) Value is man centered. Aesthetic value does not reside in an object, 
but in a relationship betu'een that object and some subject in a perceptual 
situation. 2) Aesthetic value is neither absolutely objective nor sub- 
jective, but partakes of some qualities of each: subjective in that it 
recognizes the necessary primacy of the psychological experience (liking) 
in valuing^ and objective in that it sees the valuing process as dependent 
upon rational reflection upon the situation and standards. 3) Relativist 
standards are not fixed and absolute, but flexible and tentative, They 
are empirical criteria derived inductively from concrete situations. 
4) Though the 'ntelligent critic must accept all standards which are 
sensibly and intelligently derived, he may reject those which are unin- 
telligent: untrained, hasty, or ignorant. 5) The unification of both 
form and content in aesthetic judgment is desirable. 6) The development of 
aesthetic sensitivity through training, perhaps the purpose of criticism, 
is emphasized. 


These precepts correspond closely to Bentley's general philosophical 
and aesthetic concerns. They also help systematize many of his statements 
about criticism. Bentley seems to be vrorking toward a relativist stance, 
though this may be occasionally blurred by his argumentation, which may 
be seen as a pose for purposes of debate or as the necessary result of 
holding on to belief in certain ideas. In the following I will point out 
Bentley's relationship as it converges \-dth or deviates from relativism, 

1. That the value situation lies in a relationship between a 
work of art and a perceiving subject is inherent in the view that "litera- 
ture means something." The semantic logic of meaning is that there must 
be a subject to interpret a sign, predicating a necessary relationship 
between the two. Theatrical presentation seems undeniably relational. 
Bentley has said that "The theatrical situation, reduced to a minimum, 

is that A impersonates B while C looks on." The audience or perceiving 
subject completes the value situation. 

That the subject -object relationship is full of variables marks the 
background to relativism's pluralism and anti -absolutism. 

2. That there is a subjective ground to aesthetic value is 
clear in Bentley^ who sees that the immediate object of criticism is a 
personally perceived sense of quality that precedes rationcination. 
"They were- -it is the finest word in dramatic criticism- -good; and the 

first sign of this goodness came, as it must in the theatre, in immediate 

pleasure." He suggests that this important psychological datum may be 

lost in the rational and thoughtful process of critical \^aluation: "Theatre 

is more of a directly sensuous pleasure than theatre criticism would 

suggest. . . ."'' 


Bentley rejects complete subjectivity, of course, since such 
anarchic atomism would deny the importance of rational mind and render 
criticism meaningless. 

... some degree or kind of objectivity is presumed by 
[judgm.ent] .... For if all judgments are equally valid, 
there is just my predilection and yours and the other man's, 
and we are not in the human realm at all ; we are in a sub- 
human chaos. 73 

Thus he disapproves of critical impressionism, even that of a critic 

whom he likes and who has "superior taste and brains," George Jean Nathan. 

He criticizes Nathan's subjectivism, based on a belief that great art 

"should leave you gasping, not talking," because it ignores the rational 

or objective side of valuing. This level of objectivism he finds in 

the critic's rational search for the qualities, inherent in the foi-m of 
the work, idiich make it good. He calls this a "defining" process, where 
"'defining' means acknowledging the form of the work accepted."''^ Bentley 
is even more adamantly opposed to subjectivism based on ignorance and 
tastelessness, which shall be seen below. 

3. Bentley 's comments on "defining" help delineate both the 
character and process of objectivity in relativism: "the defining process 
. . . made him a critic in the fullest sense- -one who judges by standards 
that are not imposed from without but prompted and checked by his oivm 
first-rate sensibility." That is, objectivity is not brought to the 
aesthetic valuing process as a list of rigid rules, but is developed 
within the process of liking and defining, This is a rational and empirical 
process . 

The need for flexibility in standards is a result of the changeable 
nature of experience. The dulling effect of rigid standards tends to cut 


the critic off from experience and the perception of experience which 
are the crucial elements of aesthetic value. Bentley, perhaps influenced 
by Leavis' anti -philosophical criticism, recognizes the need for flexible 

Something a critic says that is "wildly inconsistent with his 
whole theory" may be an inspiration. The drama critic must 
dare to say the things that don't fit in if only because he is 
a reporter. He writes down what he in fact saw or what he in 
fact felt. For a dramatic critic the primary--! do not say the 
ultimate- -experience is live contact with the actor. 77 

To go to the theatre knowing exactly what a plav ought to be, 
unwilling to envisage a redefinition, is sheer obscurantism. 78 

This exemplary relativism does indicate that the inductive process of 

perceiving and thoughtfully considering art xvorks is central to the 

development of standards. Among other things, it allows for freshness 

and novelty in art. Bentley seem.s willing to accept ideas from aesthetic 

views which are divergent from his ovm, as long as the central criterion 

of truth be met. Though he favors realism, he is not dogmatic about it: 

I know that there is something to learn from the anti-realistic or 
magical" school, and of itself it matters little whether, when you 
learn it, you turn against realism or simply broaden vour definition 
to _ include the new lesson. If an anti-realist can be' shovm to be at 
grips with reality, and not to be lost in technical dexterity, rococo 
ornament, or intellectual blah, there is nothing to hold against him. 79 

4) The problem of how to deal with conflicting critical claims, 

Bentley 's concern in the above quote, is dealt with in relativism by 

accepting all standards which meet the criterion of intelligence. That 

is to say that in a pluralist world there will be various ways of looking 

at the features of art ;vorks, based on psychological and sociological 

differences among men, which will generate various art theories. As long 

as the tendencies and beliefs which ground the theories are made clear 

and shown to be reasonably and intelligently derived, a basic understanding 


between individuals or gro'ups holding differing theories may be reached. 
This understanding is in the nature of an agreement to disagree. 

In the agreement to disagree, Bentley revels in the form of dis- 
agreement as a vitalizing factor in both criticism and art. It appears 
as a sub-species of his fondness for conflict and resolution. The 
inportant thing for critics is to have a point of view and to express it: 

... a man cannot keep our interest from week to week unless, in 
addition to "writing well" and "being very bright," he seems to 
be "getting at" something, to have an end in view. Disapprove 
as much as you like of what he is getting at, provided you realize 
that he wouldn't have interested you in the first place', had he not 
been getting at it. Demonstrate to the world that his personal in- 
volvement has led him into this, that, and the other error, provid- 
ing you grant that it also made him worth refuting. A critic not 
only has the right to the "ulterior motive," the arriere pensee , 
the "personal prejudice," he has to have them as a matter, so to say, 
of biological necessity. 80 

A point of view which does not take account of sociological relativ- 
ism, especially as applied to history, will not work. He criticizes Shaw 
for seeing all art through his own cultural perspective: "His limitation 

is that he does not trouble to understand the drama of earlier periods 

on its own terms." Art is related to a culture, to a time and a place, 

and the nature of that culture will affect the art. This is especially 

true, he says, for drama: 

Even more directly than the other arts- -or more crudely- -the drama 
is a chronicle and brief abstract of the time, revealing not 
merely the surface but the whole material and spiritual structure 
of an epoch. Hence the necessity of historical criticism. 82 

"sentley would of course be in agreement with the view that the 

critic of intelligence can definitively rule out unintelligent standards 

for drama. "The view that the average, untrained mind is the best judge 

in aesthetic matters cannot seriously and in good faith be defended," 

he says. The commercialism which calls "good" that which pleases the 


most people is an aesthetic based on ignorance. It is also a fully sub- 

jectivist aesthetic with no other criterion that lilcing, and when that 

liking is centered in the aesthetically imperceptive , the result is the 

elevation of bad art to a place of prominence. 

If the critic is to base his judgments on popular opinion, he must 

be sure that the public is aesthetically aviare. Thus Bentley finds 

fault in the 19th century French critic Francisque Sarcey who developed 

an excellent theory of drama but did not apply it well, The problem, 

says Bentley, came 

from the single circumstance that Sarcev'=; analysis of modem 

culture was deficient. He quoted Moliere's dictum: "there is 

no other rule of the theatre than that of pleasing the public" 

and failed to differentiate between Moliere's public and Sardou's. 84 

Hence there is good reason for the critic to understand society as well as 
aesthetics, and there is equally good reason to object to subjectivism 
as a sufficient condition for valuation. 

5. There is another good reason- -important in Bentley and 
explained by relativism- -for the critic to have a valid analysis of society. 
That is the relationship of art to reality through content, The tendency 
of relativism, like that of pragmatism, is to avoid dualities, and there- 
fore art theories which emphasize content to the exclusion of form or 

form to the exclusion of content are generally deprecated by relativists. 

This, the link betureen art and life, is of the greatest importance 

to Bentley 's realist aesthetic. As a relativist, his realism is yet another 

particular in the quest for a reasonable position between extremes, in 

this case, the extremes of formalism, and moralism. By the time Bentley 


wote, the prevailing tastes had svimg from nineteenth century moralism 
to t\^'entieth centur>' formalism (or simply "modemism") , and thus much of 
his argument is against formalism: "The theatre critic's concern is 
theatre: pla>Tvright and actor, director, scene designer, musician. 
But since all these work together to interpret life , the critic's 
approach will not be merely formal. "^^ Yet he also attacks moralism, 
which is a kind of dogmatism, when he sees it, for in a sense, both 
formalism and dogmatism remove the artist and the critic from a serious 
engagement with life. Fomalism does so obviously by focus away from 
lived reality. Dogmatism rejects life by so limiting the view of reality 
that the result is not, in fact, real. The view of life which enters 
art should not be a dogmatic one, nor should the critic deal with it 
dogmatically; this is basic. 

Since, however, value situations from life find themselves in 
art, critics should be allowed to react to them- -react, that is, to 
content- -as an aesthetic matter. Bentley implies that this is not done 
in some cases because of the honest and challenging nature of the artist's 
value search. 

The editor of TTie Reporter was recently very shocked because his 
drama critic followed up an analysis of James Baldwin's Blues for 
^^^ster Charlie with some remarks of his o\m. on the Negro Problem? 
How shocking to find either that the drama deals with life or 
that a drama critic is himself alive. 87 

Good criticism, then, implies a capacity to deal with the social/moral 

content which is an integral part of the aesthetic, especially the 

dramatic, work. 


6. Relativism's interest in intelligence, in standards, and 

in a relational sense o£ value seems to culminate in the viev: that 

aesthetic taste and appreciation can be developed and trained, This 

corresponds to Bentley's interest in the essential human qualities: 

potential for growrth and development. Rather than design works of art 

to appeal to the "average, untrained" public, he would prefer to recognize 

those human potentials and teach people to appreciate better art. He 

quotes Wilde and Chekhov: 

Art should never tr>' to be popular. The public should tr>' to 
make themselves artistic, 

You must not lower Gogol to the people, but raise the level 
of the people to Gogol. 88 

This desire may be seen as the function of criticism: to raise the 

level of aesthetic awareness. By doing so, the critic will also aid in 

raising the level of art, for as the public appreciates more intelligent 

and sophisticated art, the artist will be called on to produce it. This 

is the pedagogical function of criticism that Bentley admired in the 

New Critics. "The critic's influence is not directly on the creative 

act but on public opinion (the play^\Tight being, however, a member of the 

public), m-isLt the critic influences is morale. "^^ 

That the critic's function is that of a teacher or guide and that 

the criteria used by the critic focus on intelligence, takes us back to 

the thesis of Centur>^ so that we may clearly see a line connecting his 

thought. Bentley tends to overstate the position of the intellectual, 

but his function in society is clear: 

If . . . there are those who champion the level of excellence it 
behooves them to stand as near that level as possible. , . . Talk of 
raising the masses is mere demagogy in the mouth of a man who does 
not claim ... to be superior. Without prior existence of standards 
of excellence, without the prior existence of minority culture, no 
general development is possible. Without aristocracy, no democracy. 90 


Pragmatic progressivism seems to inhabit Bentley's aesthetic, then, 
in two ways: It is part of the aesthetic function of the artist to guide 
by concrete value search, and it is the critic's central function to guide 
the public in aesthetic matters, As we have seen, the tendentious quality 
of criticism is related both to the aesthetic and to the critic's need 
to gain a hearing (see Section 4) . 

These are the major elements of Bentley's relativist aesthetic. They 
proceed naturally from his philosophical attitudes and his background in 
literary studies. Their specifics will be examined in the following 
chapters . 


1. Maurice Mandelbaum, "Family Resemblances and Generalization 
Concerning the Arts," in Melvin Rader, ed, , A Modem Book of Esthetics 
(4th ed.; New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. ,"T973)7 pT^IOT"" 

2. This will not be a technical discussion of William James or 
of pragmatism. Most of the ideas in this section and later can be fo-ond 
m, William James, Pragmatism (New York; Longmans, Green, and Co., 
1908). Consider: "Pragmatism represents a perfectly familiar attitude 
in philosophy, the empiricist attitude. ... A pragmatist turns his 
back resolutely and once and for all upon a lot of inveterate habits 
dear to professional philosophers. He turns away from abstraction and 
insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a prjori reasons, from 
fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins 

He turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action 
and towards power. That means the empiricist temper regnant and the 
rationalist temper sincerely given up. It means the open air and 
possibilities of nature, as against dogma, artificiality, and the pretense 
of final it>' in truth. 

At the same time it does not stand for any special results. It 
is a method only. . ." (p. 51). 

Also: '^Ve plunge for^^ard into the field of fresh experience with the 
beliefs our ancestors and we have made already; these determine what we 
notice; what we notice detemines what we do; what we do again determines 
what we experience; so from one thing to another, altho the stubborn fact 
reamms that there is a sensible flux, what is true of it seems from first 
to last to be largely a matter of our oivn creation" Tp. 255). 
"On the pragmatist side we have only one edition of the universe, unfinished 
growing m all sorts of places, especially in the places uhere thinking 
beings are at work" (p. 259). 


3. This is, of course, the cerxtral feature of John Dewey's 

4. Stephen C. Pepper, lite Basis of Criticism in the Arts 
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1946), p. 67. 

5. Bentley interview. 

^ , 6. Eric Bentley, Tlie Cult of the Supeniian (London: Robert Piale 
Ltd., 1947), p. vii. (British edition of Century .) 

7. Ibid . , p. X. 

8. Kenneth Burke, "Careers Without Careerism," Kenyon Review VIII 
(Winter, 1945), 163. ^ ' 

9. Eric Bentley, Century , pp. 283-4. 

10. Ibid . , p. 28. 

11. Ibid . , pp. 24 and 219. 

12. Ibid ., p. 168. 

13. Ibid . , p. 71. There is an echo here of the patterning 
described by ^laud Bodkin in i^jxhetypal Patterns in Poetry (London- 
Oxford University Press, 1934), Ch. III. This b55'k7irte shall see, 
nad some influence on Bentley. 

14. Bentley, Century, p. 71. 

15. Eric Bentley, Bernard Shaw , pp. 56-58. 

,-, ,J-^: ^^i'^ Bentley, "Romanticism- -A Re -Evaluation," i\ntioch Review 
IV, (Spring, 1944), 10. 

17. Ibid . 

18. Ibid., p. 19. 

19. Ibid., p. 6. 

20. Bentley, Century , p. 151. 

21. Ibid ., p. 201. 

22. Ibid . , p. 72. 

23. Bentley, Commitment , p. viii. 

24. Bentley, "Romanticism," p. 18. 


25. George Novak, Pragmatism versus Marxism (New York: 
Pathfinder Press, 1975), p. 273. 

26. Lucien Goldmaim, "The isTiole and the Parts," in Rader, 
Esthetics , pp. 423-4. 

27. Bentley interv-aew. 

28. As defined by Stephen C. Pepper (o£^ cit . , Ch. Ill) con- 
textualism has its roots in pragmatism and is both ethically and 
aesthetically relativist in judgment. 

29. Eric Bentley, ed.. The Importance of Scrutiny (New York: 
Grove Press, Inc., 1948), p. xix. '~ 

30. Ibid . , pp. XV - xvi. 

31. T. S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood (New York: Barnes § Noble, Inc., 
1928), p. vii. Bentley, it is safe to say, would go further into other things 
than Eliot, for example, author psychology. 

32. Wilbur Scott, Five Approaches of Literary Criticism (New 
York: Collier Books, 1967), p. 179. Bentley, in the interview, 
denied the idea that the New Criticism was a unified movement: "There 
never was any thing called the New Criticism; it was simply a rather 
large group of critics who looked at poems without using much history." 

33. Bentley, ed.. Scrutiny , p. xiv. 

34. Stanley Edgar Hyman, The Armed Vision (New York: Alfred 
A. Knopf, 1948), p. 3. ~~ 

35. I am indebted to Dr. Corbin Camell and his book Bright 
Shadow of Reality (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Companv, 
1974) for discussion of and Insight into C. S. Lewis, 

36. C. S. Lewis, Literary Essays , ed. by Walter Hooper 
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), p. xii. 

37. C. S. Lewis, An Experimen t i n Criticism (Cambridge: 
Cambridge University Press, 1961), pp. 27-8, 

38. Walter Hooper, Introduction to C. S, Lewis, Literary Essays, 
p. xiii. ■ 

39. C. S. Lexvis, "Psycho-Analysis and Literary Criticism," in 
Literary Essays , p. 296. 

40. Ibid. 

41. Bentley interview, 

42. Bentley interview. 


43. There is a discussion in Humphrey Carpenter's The Inklings 
(Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979) of the Oxford amBIence of this 

44. Bentley, ed. , Scrutiny , p. xxiii. 

45. T. S. Eliot, quoted in Scrutiny , p. xvi. 

46. Ibid . 

47. Bentley, "Romanticism," p. 13. 

48. Eliot, The Sacred Wood , p. 100. 

49. Quoted in Scrutiny , p. xv. 

50. Bentley, Thinker , p. 273. 

51. I. A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism (New York: 
Harcourt, Brace, § Company, Inc., 1926), p. 267: 

52. Ibid ., p. 273. 

53. I. A. Richards, Science and Poetry (London: Kegan Paul, 1935), 
Exeipted m Elesio Vivas and Murray Krieger, The Problems of Aesthetics 
(New York: Remert § Com.pajiy, Incorporated, 1953), p. 585": 

54. Eric Bentley, "ITie Early I. A. Richards, An Autopsy," Rocky 
Mountain Review , vii OVinter, 1944), p. 31. 

p. 2i 

55. Ibid . 

56. John Crowe Ransom, The New Criticism (n.p. : New Directions, 1941 ) , 

57. Ibid . , p. 20 

58. Ibid., p. 42. 

59. Ibid., p. 302. 

60. Ibid., p. 58. 

61. Bentley, ed. , Scrutiny , p. xxi. 

62. F. R. Leavis, "Scrutiny: A Manifesto," in Scrutiny , p. 2. 

63. Ibid . , p. 3. 

64. Bentley, ed. Scrutiny, p. xxii. 

65. Ibid . , p. xxi. 

66. Ibid. 


67. F. R. Leavis, "A Reply to Rene Wellek," Scrutiny, p. 34. 

68. Bentley, ed. , Scrutiny, p. xxiii, 

69. I have extracted this view of aesthetic relativisTii from 
Bernard C. Heyl, primarily his book New Bearings in Esthetics and Art 
Criticism (New Haven: Yale UniversitT^^ress, 195^ and his "irtiFlF" 
^Relativism Again," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism , V (Spring, 1946) 

70. Bentley, Life , p. 150. 

71. Bentley, What, p. 9. 

72. Ibid., p. 134. 

73. Bentley, ed. , Scrutiny , p. xxiii. 

74. Bentley, Thinker, p. 261. 

75. Bentley, Search , p, 254. 

76. Ibid ., p. 252. 

77. Bentley, Event , p. 19. 

78. Bentley, Search, p. 34. 

79. Ibid . , p. X. 

80. Bentley, What_, p. 212. 

81. Bentley, Bernard Shaw , p.- 99. 

82. Bentley, Thinker , p. 77. 

83. Bentley, Search, p. 17, 

84. Bentley, Thinker , p. 301. 

85 Heyl argues this point based on the intensity and fullness of 
the aesthetic experience: "For example, it seems to me possible and desirable 
to urge that artistic theories which are concerned exclusively mth either 
content or_foim advocate standards which are inadequate as ha'<;es for the 
fw^i^'"^^^^'' judgments. Bnpirical evidence demonstrates to my satisfaction 
;^f f^^ "?^f /""I^'^'S experiences involve an appreciation of both content 
and foim and that, therefore, significance of content as well as BiTTection 
^iS? ^"^^""^ ^^ indispensable to the greatest art." New Bearings, 

86. Bentley, Event , p. 16. 


87. Eric Bentley, ed,, The Storm CK^er The Deputv (New York- 
Grove Press, 1964), p. 9. ^"^ 


88. Bentley, Thinker , p. 249. \ 

89. Bentley, What, p. 269, 

90. Bentley, Thinker , p. 250. 


In accordance with his philosophical leanings, Eric Bentley 
desires a play: 1) into which an artist has poured his mental, 
emotional, and spiritual efforts to form a truthful account of human 
experience; 2) in which that account achieves a well-fomed repre- 
sentation of human value concretely portrayed; and 3) which will have 
a deep and moving effect on both the emotions and the intellect of an 
audience. These three areas- -the process of artistic creation, the 
nature of art and the art work, and the experience of the art work- -make 
up the general field of the study of art. In the case of the drama, 
there is an additional element- -perfoimance- -which is traditionally 
considered as a secondary component of those arts in \\'hich it plays a 
major role in the presentation of the \\'ork. 

Although Bentley is aware that the playwright \vrites for per- 
formance, and though he tends to unite the theatrical arts of performance 
and the written ivork of the dramatist in one word- -"dramatic"- -his 
theor>' is basically a sophisticated emendation of the traditional view, 
placing the play^vTight and the play as the central dramatic art (focus 
on the playscript and its qualities) . The presentational arts of 
acting, directing, and stagecraft, the theatrical arts, are to follow 
the primacy of the drama. 



This chapter will examine in detail Bentley's theory of dramatic 
art. Some mention of perform.ance will be pertinent to the section on 
Realism, but the bulk of the specific matters of theatrical presentation 
will be covered in Chapter III. 

The categories used in this analysis, an expansion of the above 
three areas, have been adapted from those most commonly employed by 
contemporar>' authors in the field of aesthetics.^ They represent the 
areas of inquiry deemed fruitful to a modern understanding of art. 
They may be expressed as a series of questions, as I use them, to which 
we have already broached some answers and about which we desire further 
knowledge. This outline shows their arrangement in the following. 

I. 'What is creativity? l\hat motivates the artist? l^hat is the 
artistic process? 

II. IVhat is the nature of the VvCirk of art? 

A. In what way is the art work imitation, in what way expression? 

B. l\hat is the nature of form in the work? How is it related to 

C. l^hat is the function of art? To please? To teach? 

D. How does the question of belief enter the art work? 
How do ideas and moral values become involved? 

E. l\hat is the nature of realism in art? How does Bentley 
relate the sur _ ect matter and the materials in dram.atic and 
theatrical art? 

III. U'hat is the nature of aesthetic experience? Vttat does the 
spectator get from art? How does one look at a play? 

Although the field of study of this chapter is divided into 
various areas and sub-areas, each one focusing on a particular facet 
of art and the artistic exchange, they are all based on Bentley's 


essential view of the drama and all elaborate a number of ideas which 
are central and important to that view. There is, therefore, some 
necessary overlap in the following discussion. Intellect and mind, 
theme and ideas, expression, and purposiveness appear, for example, 
more than once. Realism appears in every section. Each idea is 
examined from various points of view to develop a full picture of 
Bentley's theor>^ 

Creativity: The Nature of the Dramatist's Work 
Bentley's view of creativity starts, as does much of his 


theory of the drama, with psychology. The dramatist is motivated 
by a desire or need to deal with his experience of reality by remaking 
and objectifying his vision in a formal structure called a play. In 
this he is guided by the force of culture and his society, though he 
will always be searching for new ways of seeing the world. Bentley 
separates the creative process of art from that of craft or pastime 
to explain that the quality of the former is one of direct struggle 
and exploration as opposed to the execution of a fully pre-conceived 
design. The artist is out to discover something, to go beyond the 
conventional view of the world, so he does not write to explain what 
he has already thought out. For this reason, the artist must remain, 
in some sense, pluralistic, for dogma will have a deadening effect 
on the search for value in concrete teims which is the artist's main 
I work . 

The psychology of the artist, the creative temperament, focuses 
on a desire to test reality, to continue a personal search for the 
essence of things beyond the point when most people adopt a conventional 


outlook. Bentley suggests that the artist is not at ease with the world, 

that he suffers under an inquietude which compels him to exanine the 

world, and this attitude of challenge is exactly what is disturbing 

(and therefore interesting) when it pervades the art v/ork: 

The artist, if not maladjusted, and I believe he is not, is not 
well adjusted either; perhaps we should follow Peter Viereck's 
suggestion and invent a third category, that of the unadjusted 
man, the healthy rebel. . . . Artists are disturbing, un- 
settling people, not by what they preach but by what they are, 
conservatives like Dante and Shakespeare being far more disturbing 
than our little revolutionaries. The greater the art, the 
greater the upset. 4 

The artist focuses on reality through his experience of it. 
Personal experiences, secondary experience like the study of art and 
ideas, and the imaginative experience of fantasy combine as the raw 
material for the artist. Bentley specifies the need for something 
greater than just personal experience as a guide for the forming process 
of art: "In addition to memories, you need culture, all art being a 
crystallization of personal experience and second-hand experience." 
He defines culture in such a way as to show that the playwright is 
not a copier of older methods, but a creative artist, aware of the 
lessons of the past: culture "at its worst means: find out how it 
was done a hundred years ago and do it again, but at its best means: 
a sense of tradition." 

The ccmplex psychology which Impels the artist to deal with his 
experience is the subjective phase of creativity; its objective phase 
is the formulation of the drama. It is a process, first, of ordering 
and objectifying experience: "For the dramatist ... to imitate an 
action is to find objective equivalents of a subjective experience. 


An action is defined in teims of incidents and events of something 
undefined that lurks inside the dramatist."^ More than this, it is 
a process of refining and enhancing experience to achieve the quality 
of art, for it is not enough simply to repeat experience: "■l\'hile the 
artist transforms fantasies into a higher reality, the journeyman, 
playwright is doomed, like the neurotic himself, to live with them."^ 

For Bentley, Strindberg exemplifies the process of refining 
objectification in the relationship bet^v-een art and experience. 
Bentley notes that Strindberg 's massive autobiographies are "the raw 
material for Strindberg 's art works." Since his novels are "a rough 
attempt to impose form upon the chaos of his experience," and the plays 
are his "central achievement," it is clear that Bentley sees this 
progression as elaboration in the quality of art.^ Strindberg 's work 
also serves as example of the insufficient objectification of subjective 
experience: his dream plays "carry symbolism well over the borderline 
of the public and intelligible into a private realm to ^^?hich we need 
a biographer's passport." 

Bentley suggests that the pla>ivright is indeed x^rking with 
many of his own feelings, needs, repressions, and fantasies, and that 
only by clearly working through them to the point of the objective 
can they be made into raw material and, then, proper art. O'Neill's 
problem, for example, is not that he lacks the motivation of the true 
artist; O'Neill is involved in a search and an exploration of reality 
and experience. His difficulty is an inability to successfully work 
through personal material which is especially charged with feeling: ' 


He is no Broadway playwright writing to entertain, to make 
money, or to be one of the boys. Nor is he a man of letters 
with an interest in the whole give-and-take of literary, 
political, or scientific discussion. He lives, as it were, 
in a trance, writing and rewriting the story of the two 
Jameses, Ella, and Eugene. Or parts of the story. Or the 
story at a remove. 10 

It is Bentley's view of the play as a kind of communication- - 
we have seen it in the "literature means something" attitude- -which 
enforces a need for objectification, for making inner experiences 
"public." This same view grounds his desire that the playwright 
transform experience into a "higher" reality. This is the creative 
basis of the view that the dramatist has a content to express in a 
form. Bentley generally speaks in terms of the substance or content 
being communicated in a play "Eliot's 'conception' is clear, noble, 
and mature, his 'communication' uncertain, irregular, a.d incomplete. 
O'Neill's 'comm.unication' is rapid, strong, almost overwhelming, his 
'conception' is rude, simple -minded, gaga. "^"^ 

For purposes of critical discussion, one suspects, Bentley 
speaks as though the creative process might be one of dressing up 
already in-hand emotion and ideas, finding a form for preconceived 
content. Or, conversely, that the process is one of fitting content 
into nearby foim. If art is a search, an exploration, then it is 
reasonable to expect the content and form to be discovered together, 
for the vitality of art lies in our sensing the quality of the search: 
"The pulse of the drama," says Bentley, "begins to beat at the moment 
the playwright begins to struggle with his experience. "^^ The true 
art work is wrought by an organic process -which, unites planning and 
execution; what the artist struggles to discover are both form and 
content. ' 


Bentley is aware o£ many levels o£ problems in the pre -thought -out 

play. The commercial product play is pre-conceived, "is not a writer's 

exploration of reality but just a calculated arrangement of effects.""*"^ 

Since it is well-crafted along traditionally conceived lines, it can 

attain a perfection which is unlike art itself: "The commercial play is 

the Swiss watch of dramaturgy, Wen properly manufactured, it is 

perfect, as only a piece of machinery can be perfect." Bentley 

suggests that while the commercial craftsman writes "with the audience 

consciously in mind," filling out a plan, the artist VvTites according 

to the dictates cf his creative discover/, "in the faith that there 

will be an audience for good work." Instead of the divorce between 

art and craft which comes in the production of commercial pastime 

plays, Bentley prefers the unification of art and craft with the latter 

the servant of the former: 

The artist has learned his craft, but is never content to 
be a craftsman. The craft serves the art or, as Goethe put 
it, one only wTites out of personal necessity. The endings of 
plays, for example, are not a gamble on the audience's response. 
They are a matter of what the play\sTight feels to be necessary. 17 

Bentley is not theoretically concerned that some v;ould prefer 

"craft and pastime over art and e:--- loration," but that there is a 

tendency in some to "confer a higher status on the lower phenomenon, 

raising craft above art, or so defining art that, to all intents and 

1 Q 

purposes, it is craft." The craft work, since it often achieves 
a high level of gloss, is easily mistaken by the unwary as a better 
product than the art work which tends to be rough and exhibit the vital 
qualities of e::ploration and struggle. 


Since the work of craft can be pre-conceived, it will lack a 
subtle, intuitive quality necessary to art, Bentley calls this 
imagination: "Reality cannot sinply be transferred from history to 
the stage. It has to go through the imagination of the playuTight."^^ 
Bentley does not define the imaginative process, but what he has in 
mind seem^s to be the kind of intuitive conceptual leaps which are 
common in art and are not the product of rational thinldng. The 
craftsman, concerned with the effect of his work on the audience, 
will strive logically for the right effect; the artist will intuit 
connections in his work that could never be ratiocinated. The craft 

work is "reasonably figured out" while the art work is "imaginatively 


Imagination may be linked with the tenn "spiritual curiosity" 
to define the elusive nature of exploration in the work of art. 
Spiritual curiosity seems to be a strong desire to know the essence 
of things, a part of the artistic temperament. Bentley introduces 
the tenn when he notes that the art/pastime dichotomy fails to explain 
the artistry in such "pastimes" as the farces of Labiche which he finds 
more artistic than the serious works of IXmas fils . He says that at 
this point the "critical teiminology lets us down," and that, at any 

rate, he is trying to measure "the degree, not of earnestness, but of 

■ - ''1 

spiritual curiosity."" Combined with an imaginative capacity for 

transferring experience into art, spiritual curiosity pervades the 

extremely brilliant pieces of Labiche- -they are the highest expression 

of a form- -more than the serious expositions of Dumas fils . Serious 

intentions alone do not make art, Bentley suggests, nor do non-serious 


intentions necessarily preclude it. Spiritual curiosity suggests that 
i^ is not conscious intention that defines the achievement of the 
artist; it, like the capacity for imagination, is something which 
must be pre-existent in the artist. 

Another quality which Bentley finds necessary for artistic 
exploration (it may also help explain the artistry of a Labiche} 
is audacity. Bentley calls this the "moral quality the artist 
needs above all others." The explorer must be audacious, must have 
daring, must be something of a fanatic. For those artists who work 
"comfortably within their established resources," Bentley reserves 
"the harshest adjective in the critical vocabulary: innocuous. "^^ 
It takes a kind of creative curiosity aligned with an audacious spirit 
in order to bypass the ordinary and search for the new, the essential, 
and the extra -ordinary in life, 

Curiosity and audacity, as traits in the artist, will lead to 
a vision of the world as, on some level, pluralistic, because every- 
thing will be questioned. The artist will avoid the pre -concept ion 
of ideas which is more a component of craft than art and acts as a 
limiting factor to the artistic search. 

Such is the case with the modem "drama of ideas," which 
Bentley realizes must be a true discussion, a working-out in dramatic 
tenns and not merely an explanation of a previously thought-out point 
of view. The didacticism of pre-digested thought lacks vitality: 


Gerhart Hauptmarai once remarked that the playwright must never 
re -word thoughts which he or his character has already thought- 
dramatic dialogue must only present thoughts in the process of 
being thought. I\'hich is another way of saving that the play- 
wright must not be directly didactic, for it is the didactic 
writer--out, not to learn, but to teach- -who concentrates on 
finding effective form for thinking that was finished long ago. 23 

Tliis is to repeat that the pla>';vTight is not a relater of ideas but 

a discoverer of form, and the thought or content is a part of this form. 

A common instance of the problem of already -thought -out ideas 

is the case of the artist who has fixed and certain ideas about the 

nature of the world, ideas which do not admit further struggle. 

Bentley has identified this problem in the later work of Brecht: 

He is one of those writers who search less and less after 

what I have been calling the human essence, because they 

are more and more convinced that they have already found it. . . . 

The only artists today who remain artists after conversion 

to causes which claim a monopoly of the truth are those who 

are not wholly convinced, 24 

This is both a theoretical deduction and an empirical observation 

by Bentley who notes that Brecht 's Communism was a vital artistic 

force while he lived in capitalist democracies, but was seemingly 

less so when he went to socialist Gemnany. Theoretically, it would 

indeed be difficult for absolute certitude to pervade the mind of an 

artist as here defined, especially if that absolutism were reinforced 

by a social/political surrounding. The artist, in complying with that 

surrounding would be making the same concession to an audience as that 

made by the entertainer, hoivever much he believed that concession 

necessary and right. 


Bentley suggests that the artist must retain the vision and 

nature of the Jamesian pluralist no matter what he believes. The 

artist's o\m beliefs and values--and those of the world around him-- 

must be continually probed and tested in the light of experience. 

Otherwise, belief becomes dogma and constricts experimentation. As 

an example of how an artist may remain committed to a political belief 

and still function as an artist, Bentley offers the case of Shaw. 

Shaw, he notes, "realizes . . . that neither socialism, nor capitalism, 

nor feudalism, nor any other such 'ism' can be the basis of an art, 

even so social an art as comedy." The reduction of all conflict to 

good socialists against bad communists (or vice versa, depending on 

one's point of view) is too simplistic for the artist. Shaw saw that 

the comedy consisted too obviously of such facts as 
that socialists are not angels nor capitalists devils. Md 
Shaw's interest as an artist has always been in the human 
situation as he found it and not simply as he desired it. 25 

It is the abhorance of doctrine even in a revolutionary like Shaw 
which leads to Bentley 's admiration of him as a pragmatist. An in- 
ability to accept the finality of the social and moral answers of the 
world's "isms" leaves the artist in a state of continual search and 
struggle and is helpful in explaining his sense of inquietude and his 
"unadjusted" nature. 

What is the artist searching for? Bentley suggests that it is 
a particularly human truth: "The 'serious' modem playwright is, 
or should be, engaged ... in the search for human essence, ""^^ 


Art and the Work of Art: Imitation and Expression 

Bentley, in accordance with his tendency to unite disparate 

views, sees the drama as both imitative and expressive. His desire 

to maintain a view that art imitates reality is based on at least 

two factors. One is the undeniable connection he sees betvv'een drama 

and life. Hie second relates to his predisposition towards realism: 

imitative theories of art tend to support realism while expressive 

theories open the door to a much greater emphasis on non-realism 

(thus the predominance of expressive theories over imitative in the 

past two hundred years) . Bentley of course sees much in art which is 

expressive, which is clearly central to his belief that the play has 

a content expressed in a form. Bentley unites imitation and expression 

by seeing imitation as the basic methodology of drama and expression 

as its central function or purpose. 

Bentley sees the importance of the imitative nature of drama 

as related to the dramatic qualities of life itself and the desire 

of human beings to make life dramatic: 

It is not just that life seems dramatic to us. We wish it to 
be dramatic; therefore, it is; this particular wish being in- 
sistent and imperious. Even our constant complaint that life 
is boring testifies to our refusal to be bored. We insist 
that every t^^fenty-four hours be a drama in twenty-four acts. 27 

Because life contains drama, Bentley concludes that Aristotle's concept of 

"^™esis is correct, that regardless of the fact that "Greek scholars 

are always explaining that, for Aristotle, imitation does not mean 

imitation ... it does." Where life itself is dramatic, the "sheer 

imitation" of life is not "unsound in principle." It is only because 

of the paucity of actual drama in life that sheer imitation has 

"possibilities [which] are extremely limited in practice." Imitation 


lies, for Bentley, at the core of the drama, for all drama reflects 
back on very basic human impulses: "The flowers of dramatic art have 
their roots in crude action." This is the reason for his examination 
in Life of the lower or rougher forms of drama, of melodrama and 
farce, for they are closely linked to elemental psychology: "The art 
of the drama is firmly grounded in human nature, and to be human is 
to revel in mishaps and disasters."^ 

It is the desire to find more drama in life that is the first 
suggestion that imitation canjiot be strict or simple. A'fuch of life 
proceeds on the dramatistic model, and so Bentley suggests that the 
drama is an extension and refinement of a process continuous with lived 
reality. According to his analysis, dreams, desire, fantasy- -all 
manner of events from the interior and exterior lives of human beings --are 
infused with a desire for the dramatic. The propensity of the drama- 
tist to focus on the unusual and the extreme in life is the result of 
imitation, the reflection of just those areas from which the most 
"dramatic" situations will proceed: "If the raw material of plot 
is events, particularly violent events, the raw material of character 
is people, especially what is regarded as their cruder impulses. "^^ 

The drama may be inextricably bound to life, but distillation 
of art from raw material is a special kind of imitation. Drama offers 
a cohesion and an authenticity that is difficult to sustain in life, 
for in life there is seldom any protracted dramatic action, which is 
why in life we fall back on the fantasy, a kind of personal art foim. 
The same applies to art: "Fantasy m^akes possible a continuity and 


wholeness in both [play and novel] which actuality would preclude. 
Truth is stranger than fiction, for fiction makes sense in a way that 


truth does not." 

Not only is drama more cohesive than life, it delivers up 
the kind of authentic encounters and meaningful events that real 
life seems designed to avoid: 

This is the paradox of "drama and life": life is dramatic 
but its drama cannot be defined and presented without departures 
from life's usual procedures. In our usual "life as it is 
lived," inhibitions reign. Meetings do not often become en- 
counters. Nor could they: it would be too inconvenient, too 
exhausting. Rather than encounter and face people all day, one 
needs devices for keeping them at arms' length. Courtesy, 
etiquette, mores, conventions are names for such devices'. . 
Life on stage is not inhibited, it is acted out; which is one 
reason we can only stand a couple of hours of stage life at 
a time. 31 

Since our desire to make life more dramatic is frustrated by social 
conventions, we turn to the imitative faculty to deal with our lives, 
or selves. If we break social convention on stage we may be dramatic. 
Similar behavior off stage may be considered neurotic or worse. There 
is a strong implication in Bentley's use of imitation that the imitation 
which is art is something more or better than life itself. 

This is not to say that Bentley desires a drama which presents 
some ideal of life. Psychologically, we do want life to be dramatic, 
but Bentley differs from those vhio propose that drama should present 
idealized models for behavior- -idealized often being a code word 
for dogmatically imposed moral conventions. Bentley is actually more 
strictly "imitative" than that, for he does not want to impose teaching 
from the outside but bring into dramatic focus the drama of life, of 


the real. He wants to discover the ethical within the process. The 
proponents of a morally ideal theatre want to manipulate life to their 
o^v-n ends while Bentley wants to show the real life that is beneath 
the convention. 

The changes made in "sheer imitation" are to highlight the real. 
IVhat life offers in unusual instances and lijnited quantities, art and 
drama promise in abundance. The artist begins with life, but his 
sense of focus transports him beyond sheer imitation. "^^ 

There is another sense in which imitation pervades Bentley 's 

thinJcing, also bound up with psychology. Not only do we want to make 

life dramatic, we want to see things we know- -not in the comfortable 

sense of common knowledge, but in the revelatory sense that all art 

eventually shows us the world and ourselves in it. This is the base 

from which Bentley explains the importance of myth in the arts: 

The point of any myth is to provide a known element as a starting 
point and preserv^e us from the vacuum of absolute novelty. Art 
is a matter of satisfying certain expectations, and myth sets up 
expectations with a minimum of fuss. Art is also . .' . a matter, 
not of cognition, but of re-cognition; it does not tell you 
anything you didn't Icnow (the telephone directory can do that), 
it tells you something you "know" and makes you realize. 33 

IMs also explains the importance of type characters in drama, a 

form in which much ground must be covered in a short time. Types 

hasten our understanding, and the great dramatic types hasten our 

recognition and revelation. For though characters begin as apart from 

ourselves, the great dramatic characters become representatives of 

important forces in life. Some character types (Hamlet, Othello, 

Alceste) have become so relative to the large questions in life that 

they are termed archtypes. 


Through this concept of re-cognition, Bentley is able to reconcile 
the concrete and individual with the universal. He unites Bergson's 
modem concept that "All art aims at what is individual" with 
Dr. Johnson's "Nothing can please many and please long but just 
representations o£ general nature" by a simple combination: '\\n artist's 
'just representations of general nature' are, in each case, thoroughly 
individual. "^^ 

This view of imitation contains a core of expression. Not 
the artist's self-exp.ression 2er se, but the expression inherent in a 
personal vision of reality. l\?here imitation is guided by the hand 
of the artist and the human desire to make the material of life both 
dramatic and representational, there will be a necessary expression, 
even in the most objective of works. This is because imitation is a 
method, but it is not just copying, for it is imitation and more: the 
transfoimation of raw material (from life] into drama that has the 
explosive and revelatorv- quality of art. 

The creative act is an expressive act, so that as the artist 
struggles with life to make a work of art, one may sense the vision 
which funds this labor. Bentley quotes Henry James to the point: 
"IVhen vigorous writers h^ve reached maturity, we are at liberty to 
gather from their works some expression of a total view of the world 
they have been so actively observing. This is the most interesting 
thing their works offer us."^^ 

Because art is expressive, it cannot attain the objectivity of 
science, but because it must include a communicable vision of reality, 
it cannot be wholly subjective either. There is a continuum between 


scientific objectivity and complete subjectivity which includes elements 
of both and is the territory of art: "I mean that no work of art 
is wholly 'objective' or 'subjective.' It is a matter of emphasis," 
he says. 

It is significant that Bentley does not see expression in terms 

of ideas or theme but in terms of vision, and that vision is expressed 

in terms of an overall feeling. The expression of the work is not a 

separate part of the whole, nor even a particular idea. It is integral 

with the structure, detail and style of the play. He explains Shaw's 

deviations from naturalism (which he admired) as the object if ication 

of a feeling or sense about the world: 

He [Shaw] must have intuitively understood something which, as 
a critic, he failed to grasp: that plot does not merely re- 
produce external reality. The violence and intrigue in 
Shakespeare, which Shaw the critic declared extraneous, provide 
the objective correlative of Shakespeare's feelings about life, 
and the "idiocies" of the plot of Man and Superman provide an 
objective correlative for Shaw's sense of modern life. 38 

Bentley is aware of expressiveness as an important element 

in many levels of dramatic and theatrical art. In fact, the quality 

of expressiveness seems to define Bentley 's sense of beauty. The 

function of art is to be expressive, and this fimction resides not 

only in the total art work, but in the various materials that go into 

the making of the work: language, the actor, the settings, and the like. 

The expressive is active and judgmental; it is forceful and evocative. 

Of Bert Lalir he writes that "his personality , . , expresses a criticism 

of life. ..." Like\\rise, he sees expressiveness in the comedy 

of Chaplin: "About any film of his, howe\'er slight, there is an air 

o± menace. ..." Expression takes precedence over simple 

•~ U> ;^=vl ■ iiLf »UAA 


attractiveness in the actor so that "the agile body is a truer archtype 
of theatre art than the beautiful one."'^^ In fact, the traditional 
sense of beauty often fails to explain, for Bentley, the expressive 
power of the non -beautiful : "I am almost ready to state that a 
great theatrical voice is always an ugly one."'^^ Bentley is clearly 
drawn toward the expressive as an especially potent example of the real, 
just as he prefers the imperfection of art to the perfection of craft: 
"Commercial art is as smooth, rounded, and unexceptional as an egg, 
while true art by contrast has something offensive about it, something 
imperfect and, possibly, maddening. "^"^ 

Although Bentley limits dramatic expression to the nature of 
its human materials and their realistic portrayal of human life (this 
is to be discussed in detail in the section on Realism) , he recognizes 
the expression possible in other forms of theatre such as the puppet 
theatre, the musical, and the dance. He speaks of the "dignity of 
puppet art" as being fostered by the "ritual expressiveness of the few 
positions that are possible." ^ A dance number from a musical may 
have purely formal expression: "How the 'serious' theatre would com.e 
alive if anything ever happened there like that lovely moving pattern 
of limbs and umbrellas in fading light which is the dance in tlie rain 

1 C 

from On Your Toes." He sees in the dance the possibility of ritual 
expression, the formalism of the "ecstatic theatre" which is "concerned 
with life still unliv-d, unlndividuated, primordial, life unfiltered, 
still in the well spring. ""^^ 


No doubt Bentley's interest in Aristotle and the depth of 
his insight into the psychology of drama -in- life have led him to see 
much truth in the imitative quality of dramatic art. Imitation 
alone, however, does not explain the actual, full nature of art 
as Bentley sees it. The concept of expression is necessary to do this, 
and it is central to liis thinking. 

Bentley is concerned about form both as the shape and structure 
of the drama and as the overall marmer of the play's composition, or 
style. His basic view that the drama contains material from life which 
has been foimed leads him to see the form and content dimensions of 
the play as united. Drama, indeed all art, must be well formed, but 
form should not be emphasized to the exclusion of content. He tends, 
however, to emphasize content over form, seeing form as the method 
by which content is revealed, Bentley offers insight into the sources 
of form as style, and though he demands that form not be imposed from 
the outside, he sees the modern realistic style as sufficiently broad 
to allow a great latitude of formal expression. He rejects two levels 
of formalism, both the conservative focus on form as an escape from 
true value search and the avant-gardist extremism which, in its search 
for new form and its focus on form, often leaves the content dimension 
unexplored. As the structure of the drama, Bentley sees form as 
basic to the art, for it is in the elaboration of the structural form 
(the plot) that he locates the primary source of the spectator's 

■— ■-iMl^rf.^-l.-wj.-B- 


The general function of form, for Bentley, is to give presence 
to an inportant content; the playivTight ' s search is not merely foimal . 
His statements that the artist must search for "the right theatrical 
form for the intentions of the play,"^^ and that "form must be left 
fluid so that a theme may be allowed to find whatever fom suits it best' 
suggest the primacy of content/^ Likewise, for the viewer of the play 
fom should recede and content should be featured. Bentley is pleased 
when "form is so perfectly handled that it disappears, and we confront 
the content in its nudity. "'^^ Theme or content is the inpulse which 
drives the form. 

Bentley is aware that form as style is partly an historical 
matter, influenced not only by personal and aesthetic concerns but also 
by culture and environment: 

Each time a work is written a proper fonn has to be found 
Fom is a fluid but not an arbitrary thine. It corresponds 
to the mind of the artist, which is in part molded by place 
and time. Although, therefore, an age may bring forth many 
forms, all of which represent its nature as well as the nature 
o± the individual poet, there may well be one or two particular 
toms which are predominant. 50 

Bentley offers the example of naturalism as an artistic movement which 
interacted profoundly with the beliefs and values of the late nineteenth 
century and, in addition, had the very positive effect of loosening 
the bounds of dramatic fom of the period. 

Naturalism, Bentley notes, did not receive its primary force 
from aesthetic theory, but from social concerns. IVhen he says that 
"like all powerful literary movements, naturalism was not chiefly 
aesthetic but ethical," he implies that the values which the naturalists 
found in society were inJierent in their aesthetic vision ^^^ich was 


expressed in a particular dramatic fom (or, in their case, a particular 
abhorrence of form) . ^^ Their ethical desire to depict the truth about 
society led them to throw doivn both the pompous sentimentality and the 
rigid form of the "well-made" play, to deny all artifice, and to preach 
the direct portrayal of life, both its lower-class squalor and its 
bourgeois hypocracy. 

The ethical force of naturalism's veracity had the effect of 
loosening the foimal strictures of the "well-made" play in ^hich a concept 
of form had become a rule, a method of judging drama by exterior and 
fomal norms. This exterior formalism tended to ignore content: if a 
play had three tightly fitting acts with proper builds, climaxes, and 
resolutions, then it was a good play. Under the influence of naturalism's 
theoretical disregard for fom, "the more gifted artists benefitted . 
in that they found to hand a more malleable medium [i.e., form] than 
their fathers had found." But they were not without form. Artists 
like Chekhov were influenced by naturalism to develop a subtly formed 
realism. Chekhov's tightly controlled fonn is confusing to the un- 
initiated, says Bentley, because perception of fomi tends to dwell 

on the obvious and "a new fonn always seems fomless to the conservative 


Bentley supports the predominance of realistic form in the modern 
world on both aesthetic and historical grounds: 1) it is the fom most 
likely to recede, least likely to obtrude on dramatic content; 2) it 
is a loose form, both broad and centrist, flexibly combining the ethical 


force and ant i -dogmatism of naturalism with the formal complexity of 
more traditional dramatic structure and experimenters like Brecht who 
developed a "new foim of realism;" and 5) ours is a sophisticated and 
scientific age. In a complex world there will be many forms and much 
experimentation as artists explore formal expression and as new movements 
in art and philosophy excite new concepts in form to follow new ideas. 
Form will, however, tend to return to the broad realistic center since 
foniial extremes, once done, often need not be done again: "IVe often 
find that inventors of 'new' forms in modem literature carry a formula 
as far as it can go." 

Bentley's insistence that the drama have both form and content 
is the source of his criticism of both avant-garde and conservative/ 
commercial formalism (which he often calls "theatricalism") . Any 
emphasis on style/fomi at the expense of content/life is negative for 
Bentley. And since content for him must be in tems of the specific 
concrete, formalist abstraction is a particular problem. 

Bentley is not insensitive to the goals of the modem formalist 
search in the theatre which he recognizes as a "going back to the 
beginning, scraping back, as Stark Young once put it (he was a painter) 

r- A 

to the design." But he is concerned that such admirable search may 
leave the social and human element behind. Formalism tends to abstract 
human concerns, even when the search is serious, Bentley criticizes 
the expressionists and O'Neill for attempting "to seize life in its 
essence but without its content." The formalist tries to get at the 
essentials directly, while Bentley looks for the essentials through 


particulars, iv'hen the search is not serious, as in conservative formalism, 
emphasis on form becomes an excuse for no significant search at all, 
as in the "well-made" plays of Sardou, the Baroque of Nazi Germany, and 
in Russian socialist realism. 

The form/content relationship must contain a vital content; 
otherwise there is little to support the form. This notion is combined 
with the idea that form must follow the nature of the content, and the 
turo help Bentley deal with various specific aesthetic problems. For 
example, when an author has much to express and cannot find a valid 
artistic foim, the expression is vitiated: "At the present, Sartre's 
only notion of an instrument to enforce his ideas is melodramatic 
cliche." Tliis is content with bad form. There is also the problem 
of a once-valid form from which the content or vitality has gone. 
This may be seen in old art forms which are kept alive from the outside, 
Bentley speaks of a Chinese theatre which is "still interesting as a 
relic, as an unfamiliar form from which we can learn something, but 
lacking in substance, an empty shell. "^'^ A similar problem exists with 
copy productions: "The details were so definite that one had the 
impression the play was already embalmed and being preserved for posterity. "^^ 

Perhaps the most essential form/content problan concerns the 
presence of ideas or meaning in a play which Bentley says should not 
be injected from the outside but should grow as a part of the fonn, 
must be organic to the structure. It is common on Broadway, Bentley 
notes, to attempt to give stature to a commercial play by such injection: 
"The formula for serious drama is: non-serious drama plus a small dose 
of 'modern ideas.'" 


Foim, in addition to being the overall style, is also the spine 
of the drama. It is the arrangement of the plot and more, for the 
patterns of the play are complex and exist on many levels. The dramatist 
works on the form of the play in order to affect the audience, and, as 
usual, Bentley emphasizes the rational, fonned background to the 
sensation of the emotional elements of the play: "In a play no twinge 
can be inflicted on an audience which is not a part of an intelligent, 
intelligible pattern and has meaning as such."^° In this way, Bentley 
relates the primary effect of the play to pattern or foim, and thus it 
is the importance of form which influences both Bentley 's and Aristotle's 
anphasis on plot. 

Form at this level is not merely the sequence of events in the 
play, but can be seen as the central achievement of the playwright and 
his major purpose. It is the building of a pattern which will draw 
an audience into the events, and in this matter Bentley 's view is much 
like that of Kenneth Burke who relates form to "the psychology of the 
audience." For Burke, "fom is the creation of an appetite in the mind 
of the audience and the satisfying of that appetite. "^"^ Tliis is quite 
similar to Bentley 's definition of suspense: "Not merely ignorance 
as to what will happen next, but an active desire to know it, a desire 
that has been aroused by a previo'js stimulus. "^^ At its most sophisti- 
cated- -in artistic works --Bentley describes how audience psychology is 
not hinged so much on "infomiation for the head as reassurance for the 
heart." The conclusions of great plays, those which do not depend 
for their enjoyment on knowing the ending, are generally kno™ in advance. 


We do not want to "find out" the ending, but by fomal complication, 
see it come about. Burke deals explicitly with this: "IVe cannot take 
recurrent pleasure in the new (in infomation) but we can in the natural 
(in form)." Recalls the use of form "eloquence" and says it is "the 
end of art, and thus its essence. "^^ Bentley tends to agree that 
fonnal excellence is the essence of the aesthetic, though perhaps not 
the end of art. 

The Function of Art 
Bentley deals characteristically with the classical dualism 
which lies at the center of discussion about the purpose of art.^^ 
Rather than belabor the question of whether art's function is to teach 
or to please, he hastens to accept both and finds ways to unite them, 
He concludes that "to teach" is an important and central function of 
art, and, in addition, he demands pleasure as a part of the aesthetic 
experience. At the extremes of the dualism he does not deny the need 
for some simple pastime or some hard propaganda; he merely opposes 
making these extreme stances the central concept for a theory of the 
drama. By taking a position in favor of some level of didacticism in 
drama, of som.e rational/intellectual content, Bentley goes against both 
the dogmatism of the commercial theatre, founded on the base concept 
of the public as dull and without any higher wish than a moment's 
distraction, and the dogmatism of blatant propaganda u'hich considers 
the public witless and unable to weigh an issue. In this we see a prag- 
matic humanism which desires a positive effect from drama upon people. 

'<P> '^•—l- .i*<^» Jm 


Bentley's theory, in short, is that the drama uses pleasure to 
accomplish a kind o£ teaching- through- experience which may itself be 
highly pleasurable. For Bentley, pleasure is not a simply defined word. 
Likewise, he views society as complex and fragmented. It is the frag- 
mented quality of the modem social order, exacerbated by the pressures 
of commercialism, which is the foundation of Bentley's interest in a 
drama in ^^Tlich points of view- -ideas --are discussed openly. This 
discussion, in the form of conflict, is the foundation of Bentley's 
desire for purposiveness and his leaning towards the teaching function 
of art. 

Bentley states a very general purpose for art, based on its 

relation to society aiid, particularly, his analysis of society's needs: 

Bringing things alive would, I think be widely recognized today 
as the purpose of the arts in general, a purpose doubly worthy 
and urgent m a civilization like ours which is actually less a 
civilization than a massive assault on all forms of vitality 
not to mention life itself. 67 ' 

This purpose is at variance with the direction of modem society to 
cheapen not only the arts but much else besides by making "entertainment" 
the model for much human activity. Here, "entertainment" means, not 
just pastime, but "a pleasing titillation of the senses and of that 
small part of the brain which the simplest jokes call into play, Enter- 
tainment is an infinitely complex industry devoted to the evocation of 
the crudest responses. "^^ Such entertainment, along with the crude 
propaganda of salesmanship which accompanies it, has a deadening effect 
rather than a livening one in that it fosters cheapness, simple minded- 
ness, thoughtlessness, and insensitivity. It is therefore anti-human, 


whereas art is about "teachdng the human heart it can exist again, 
that it can be brought back to life."^^ The end of art is to teach 
this in a general way; it is a Romantic purpose. It is not directly 

In a sense, however, it is didactic, which puts it in the main- 
stream of Western art theory. Bentley notes that "in the course of 
Western history, the didactic view of art has predominated, "'^'^ He 
mentions ironically that "it was not Karl Marx but Samuel Johnson who 
said: 'It is always a v.Titer's duty to make the world better.'"''-^ 
But since Aristotle posited "pleasure" as the purpose of poetn^ Bentley 
is careful to quote both Aristotle and S. H. Butcher to show that 
Aristotle's concept of pleasure was neither simple nor simple-minded: 

pleasure includes an active phase, a learning phase, and learning is 

the highest form of pleasure. 

Bentley relates the force of purposiveness in modem drama not 

to any change in the nature or purpose of art, but to changes in 

society which have the effect of bringing out certain directions in art. 

Against Brecht's most didactic theorizing ("The main thing is to teach 

the spectator to reach a verdict") Bentley places Longinus' ancient 

dictum, "the effect of genius is not to persuade or convince the audience, 

but rather to transport them out of them.selves." In this marjier he gives 

credence to both views, the didactic and the sublime, for he is aware 

that "the modem drama . . . has been much more inclined to persuade 

and convince than was premodem drama, nor am I one of those who regret 


Modem, fragmented society needs an art which will have an active and 
positive effect, a didactic effect; in some sense, art will ahelp establish 
balance and direction in society, perhaps through the indent! ficat ion 
of values . 

There is some radicalism- -but not a great deal --in Bentley's 
unification of Brecht and Longinus, of didacticism and intense pleasure, 
of intellect and emotion. In his view, the unification of pleasure and 
learning opposes a \videly-held notion that learning must be separate 
from lived experience. This is based on a dichotomy- -that between 
thought and feeling --which Bentley denies. TTie dualism implies that 
"art is emotional, while learning is intellectual."'''^ Bentley argues 
that not only is much emotion involved in the learning process, but 
that even painful emotion ("to learn from painful experience"] is closer 
to pleasure than to no feeling at all. His point about learning and 
pleasure is amply supported by educational theory, and we need go no 
further than Aristotle's theory of the purpose of tragedy to find a 
view of art in which emotional balance, perhaps even emotional enthrall- 
ment, is brought about by the aesthetic experience of pain. It follows 
that some kind of pleasure is presumed by all art, not merely as its 
purpose, but as a psychological prerequisite for attention. As Bentley 
says, "that one should pay attention without pleasure, in art, is never 
intended, . . . "''^ 

The broad view that the function of art is to return mian to 
his humanity is active and purposive. It means that the play\vTight 
cannot simply give the audience what they wm\t to hear, that which 
will make them complaisant. Bentley opposes the theor>' that the play 


"mirrors the picture people have of themselves," and that "wnriting verse 

is almost like taking the blood pressure o£ the age."^^ According to 

Bentley, realism, like Hamlet's "holding the mirror up to nature," 

does not show men as they want to be or want to be seen, but as they 

actually are. It is a normative mirror, and its purpose is to expose 

the truth. As the artist has become the conscience of society, he may 

also offer to the eyes models Avhich are intended to shock or jolt us 

out of complacency, to reintroduce interaction between individuals 

and values. This is what Bentley has in mind when he says, "1 should 

like to oppose to this idea of a poet who merely takes the blood 

pressure of the age the idea of a poet who raises the blood pressure 

of the age." Such a poet would find an audience because of the active 

pleasure to be had from his works: 

^^'here is there more fun- -in a comfortable play that gives 
auntie back her picture of auntie or an uncomfortable plav 
which, v/hile it may annoy auntie a bit, also intricmes her 
tickles her, interests her, livens her up, and perhaps 
even shakes and moves her, 77 

We must add that "auntie" xvould have to be open, curious, and willing 
to undergo this kind of artistic experience- -but these are merely 
the attitudes necessar)^ for any learning experience. 

Broadly speaking, then, Bentley's didacticism posits a social 
function for art. The artist and the art wrk tend to stand in con- 
frontation with society's tendency to relax into doctrinaire ways. 
To overcome the humdrim and the meaningless, the artist must deal 
with the individual and social issues of the time, knowing that these 
are not necessarily limited to one age, but may be relative to many. 
Art promotes an awareness on the part of the spectator which is necessaiy 
in a true society. Rudolf Arnheim describes it clearly: "One aspect 


of the wisdom that belongs to a genuine culture is the constant aware- 
ness of the symbolic meaning expressed in concrete happening, the sensing 
of the universal in the particular."^^ Bentley's purpose is to have 
people see this function in art, to understand the implications and 
insights of art works. Art has the function of letting us look at 
ourselves and the world really . 

Considering this extensive didacticism, one would expect Bentley 
to find favor with the politically or socially engaged artist but not 
with the un-engaged aesthete. Although this is generally true, Bentley, 
in the essay "Tlie Theatre of Coimitment," shows how the aesthete may be 
seen as engaged. He does this by focusing not only on his works but 
also on the social situation in which the works were produced, and in 
this way he is able to re-define alienation as engagement. In the 
proper political context, the follower of ars gratia artis may be, 
if not canmitted, then one step away from it. He gives the example 
of Pasternak's aestheticism as virtual commitment in the face of Stalin. 
He offers Oscar Wilde, who said art was "perfectly useless" because 
"he didn't want art reduced to the role of little moralistic mottos. . . .' 
Wilde's rejection of art's utility raised art to the highest place in 
life, and Wilde 'Ws the most committed of men. He not only preached 
anarchistic socialism, his parading of the aesthetic way of life was 
his foim of direct action." Bentley uses this extensive sociological 
view to show that his general concept of didacticism is valid for all 
art, for he concludes that "all serious authors" are committed.''^ 


As a sub-heading to his overall didacticism, Bentley is inter- 
ested in the direct relationship bet^^^een politics and art. men he uses 
the term Commitment, capitalized, he means politically committed, where 
the artist's "political views enter into his art." Political commit- 
ment in art seems to be a more forceful fom of art as Bentley usually 
sees it, for it is directly critical: "Relative to the general social 
situation, the literature of Coiimitment is radical. It is a literature 
of protest, not approval, of outrage, not tribute." Coiranitment is the 
result of an extreme situation in ^^hich the artist finds it necessary 
to mix social action and art directly, such as when the art is in danger 
of being made a servant to dogma (Bentley gives the example of classicism 
in Hitler's Gemany).^^ 

Because the Committed artist is still basically an artist, 
Bentley does not belittle the propaganda in Brecht's plays by saying, 
as many do, that Brecht is an artist only "in spite of" the propaganda. 
Bentley is aware that Brecht's polemics and his broader vision often 
set up a tension, but he prefers not to see the propaganda as conscious 
and the vision as unconscious. How, he asks, can an intellectual play- 
wright be admired only for his unconscic; s production? He would rather 
see Brecht as a shrewd artist with an all -encompassing vision, a serious 
Marxist, }-et, like Shaw, keenly aware of the ironies and contradictions 
of life. Brecht was able to remain committed without losing sight of 
the art of drama. Certainly what the author has on his mind may be a 
i^alid elsnent in a play when it is rendered concretely, in the manner 
of art rather than in the manner of polemic. ^"^ 


But Bentley concludes that there may be a time for polemic. 

Extreme social tunnoil may bring about a situation in which the artist 

"may be called upon to drop the pen and take up, if not the sword, then 

whatever is the most effective ojiplement of direct action. The years 

1942-45 were such times, if such tijnes ever were." And there are 

when it is not more, but less violence which is called for- -precisely 

the situation in 1966 when this essay .was \vTitten: 

One could say the need was for civilization , just that. 
One could say: education . But there is an urgency which 
neither word suggests, and therefore one must out with it 
and say: there is a need for propaganda . 82 

Civilization, education, propaganda- -this is a continuum of increasing 

specificity. I doubt Bentley is reversing his fonner criticism of the 

non- artistic nature of propaganda; he is perhaps accepting propaganda 

as part of the materials of the artist. The expression of outrage at 

a political situation can be effectively dramatic, as in Hochhuth's 

Jhl - DeP'-^ty or in Picasso's more completely realized Guernica . Bentley 

says that The Deputy is a success because "the purpose of this kind of 

play is to comm.unicate a sense of outrage. And it has communicated a 

r 83 

sense of outrage." That is, Hochh.uth's play may be seen as an explora- 
tion of a situation fused with an emotion, not out to teach, but to arouse. 
Certainly the play effectively propagandized only those previously 
inclined to its thesis. 

Although this judgment seems extra-aesthetic, it may also be 
defended on grounds suggested above. In the manner of a good pragmatist 
and relativist, Bentley has seen fit to re-examine a situation and expand 


his aesthetic. He is accommodating a drajnatic experience in ishich he 
senses quality. This is not a repudiation o£ aesthetic criteria, but 
a redefinition. He is not calling art propaganda or vice versa. He is 
exploring the conditions of art within the framework of a purposive 
aesthetic, searching for works and situations which interact in some 
aesthetic way ^vith political belief and a sensed need for action. If 
the artist expresses, then nothing seems to limit the material of 
his expression. That material may include, for example, a reaction 
to the outrageous in life. 

The artist's outrage at a particular social situation is the 
closest Bentley comes to admitting a strong element of direct personal 
expression into the art work, and this is allowable only under the 
general condition that the artist render his expression in dramatic 
terms. How this is done is the focus of the next section. 

Ideas in Art: He the Play^^Tight Thinks 
Bentley does not think the drama is exclusively any one thing- - 

certainly not, of themselves, ideas and the intellect from which they 

proceed. Yet he defends the proposition that intellect and ideas 

are a valid part of the drama. As he erases the please/teach dualism, 

so he erases the intellect/emotion dualism and denies the polarity of 

the view that drama m.ust either "make statements or give great experiences." 

Drama flows from the whole man, and like "all art draws on both the 

intellect and the feelings, and presupposes that the two work, not at 

loggerheads, but in harness. "^^ 

Ideas, which are endemic to language, are unavoidable in the 
drama. In addition, all emotion and ideas in drama proceed from 
ordered, intelligible patterns. The coherence of structure necessary 
for the transmission of vivid experiences suggests a foiling mind-- 
ajid a receiving mind capable of processing the artistic structure. 
Plays, though full of emoti.on, do not transmit emotion in directly 
emotional teims . The unique emotion which comes from a particular play 
is the result of unique experiences presented by the play in concrete 
terns and a meaningful, intelligible pattern which must be processed 
by the mind. In this way, all drama contains intellectual elements, 
even if every play does not contain the specifically featured content 
of ideas that may appear in a play by Shaw or Pirandello. 

There are, then, tv/o levels of thought which m,ay appear in a 
play: 1) the forming process that eminates from the complexities of 
mind and both reflects and expresses them and 2) the content dimension 
of the art work which may have thought as a part of its subject matter, 
may focus on thought as an important aspect of the human being to be 
expressed in the drama. The fomer is an aspect of all drama- -all art-- 
and may be seen as embodying the greater purpose of drama, the trans- 
mission of "wisdom," or as Bentley prefers, "Lebensweisheit."^^ The 
latter corresponds to the ideas in the "drama of ideas" as presented 
in modem sociologically and philosophically oriented drama. 

No element of thought or idea in a drama can be the result of 
the mere translation of ideas into a play, a fact which may be deduced 
from Bentley 's distinction between craft and art. Thought enters the 


play as the pla>T.Tight struggles with the material of the drama. The 
pla>nvright "thinks" with plot, character, action, dialogue, and the 
like, rather than directly in philosophical ideas. The play is not a 
rhetorical message, a thesis to be proven, a moral tale, or anything 
other than a work of art. 

The abstract quality of philosophy is contrary to the concrete 
depiction of life which the play needs, and Bentley deplores this 
abstraction in the writing of DeMotherlant and Sartre: 

In the plays of both authors there are too many "key speeche'^ " 
speeches after which one can say "Oho, so that's what the "'' 
play's about," speeches which \vould not be necessar)^ if the 
drama had been concentrated in the action and the characters. 87 

The art of the drama consists, that is, in creating valid and intense 

actions and characters that ring true. Ideas cannot be grafted on or 

stuck into a play- -they come out of the other elements and are embodied in 

thefornand matter of the play. Bentley decries the tendency not to do 

the real work of the dramatist: "\'ou imagine that all you need to do 

is refer to 'schizophrenia' and you are exempt from the onerous duty 

of creating a schizoid character. You imagine that all you need to do 

is refer to religion many, many times and you have dramatized faith, "^^ 

Since Bentley 's method as a critic is often to look for the 

theme or content in a play and then to discuss its embodiment in the 

dramatic elements of character and structure, he points out the pitfalls 

in imposing a theme in a play: in bending material to make a point, the 

playwright may destroy the integrity of the drama. Making a statement 

is not as important as dramatic development. Bentley shows the problem 

of the mechanical forcing of theme in the case of the pla}^^Tight who 


"^^st make his play indicate a particular theme but can do so only at 
the cost of overs ijnplifying his characters to make them fit a pre- 
detemiined mold, to the extent that character "becomes a dull thing and 
of no ijnaginative interest." This oversimplification results in melo- 
drama, and "bad melodrama [that in which "the moral is too earnestly 
insisted"] does not cease to be bad when you call it Socialist Realism. "^^ 

IVhere thought and ideas are to be a focus of the content, the 
playwright must take care. He should not set out to prove an idea or 
thesis in a play since the ideas that are in "drama of ideas" must be 
dealt with in terms of conflict, and the process of proving may cause 
the dramatist to cheat: "To prove a thesis in a play is no better than 
cheating: all the playivTight has to do is stack the cards. Md to 
concentrate on a puipose of this kind is to exclude all the traditional 
and mandatory substance of a play."^° Bentley cautions that in the 
process of dealing with ideas one must remember that they are a part 
of a work of art which has its own^non- discursive, methodology. 

As opposed to the pitfalls in attempting to get ideas into drama, 
Bentley describes the t\\ro basic methods (corresponding to the two levels 
of thought) by which intellect enters the drama. The first is coirmon 
in dramatists from Sophocles and Shakespeare to the present, who do not 
focus on ideas, but rather deal poetically with nature. Tliese dramatists 
often write within a secure and unified world view. They are not like 
the rhetorician \^ho writes to put existing thoughts into better ex- 
pression, to take ideas and give them the best possible fom, The poet/ 
dramatists want "to get at a thought before it is fully thought," so 
that "the word- finding and thought -thinking proceed together." Thought 


and ronn are bound together in the original dramatist, and the thought 
inheres to choice of words, building of actions, and creation of characters, 
Bentley offers, as he often does, Shakespeare as the pinnacle of this 
kind of dramatist, noting that even the philosophical borrowings in his 
plays seem new because they are so experienced, "This is one reason 
why Shakespeare means more to us than those who would teach us more. 

He takes us back to a point before that at which 'teachings' are formu- 

lated." Shakespeare "thinks" in the form of drama and poetry. His 

language and action are vivid and lead to vivid experience; but they 

are also shot through with vivid ideas. 

Tlie second method for dealing with ideas in drama is to make 

them the principal focus of the play, as in the modern "drama of ideas." 

Bentley says that whereas Moliere may be seen to " use ideas but not make 

his drama cut of them," in the drama of ideas "the ideas are questioned 

and it is by the questioning . . . that the ideas become dramatic, for 

never is there drama without conflict." Bentley posits a sociological 

reason for the predominance of idea conflict in modem drama in that a 

conflict of ideas "might be particularly appropriate to a world without 

a common faith, philosophy, or idea." 

In this world where there are no fixed beliefs, no arguments 
from authority, and no cohesive community to xvhich the drama may appeal, 
the drama of ideas will be important and useful. It offers the play- 
wright an arena in which he may work out the truth of ideas concretely 
through character, dialogue, and action, using the dramatic method of 


conflict and resolution or dialectic. Tne playwright may, in the finest 
works, forge new values. Bentley takes ideas to mean ethical ideas and 
he, like Shaw, is interested in "Ibsenism" because "morality was in 
Ibsen something to be discussed and ^s-orked out, not something given. 
Morality is not only to do right but to discover what is right. . . ."^^ 
The methodology of the drama of ideas is close to that of pragmatism, 
and both presmie a pluralistic world. For this reason Bentley says 
that both Ibsen and Shaw use a "flexible pragmatism close to that of 
William James." 

Bentley identifies two kinds of discussion of ideas in the drama, 
both evident in the work of Shaw. First is "the discussion of problems 
for their inherent interest" (as in "Don Juan in Hell"). Second and more 

common to the stage is "discussion as an emination of conflict between 

persons." In both types of discussion of ideas, the thought content 

is embedded in character and situation if the play is good. In both, 

ideas are being worked out, as in life, rather than merely paraded 

before an audience. Bentley thinks Shaw used both methods superbly 

for, given Shaw's philosophy, the outcomes are never obvious. For this 

reason Bentley defends Shaw against those who find him non-dramatic, 

all "ideas," by pointing out how Shaw is able to sympathize with both 

sides, "not as a matter of fairmindedness , . . [but as] a matter 

of a particular mentality, a particular way of observing life. Shaw's 

way is the dram.atist's way. For him, ideas perform like characters. "^^ 

Shaw concretizes, and is therefore a genuine dramatist. 


Bentley sees the play as having valid elements of thought in 
terms of ideas and statements that eminate directly from the action 
and the characters, and in addition a greater thought which is the 
wisdom of the play^^^-ight: "Thought, defined as an aspect of a play, 
is only an aspect of a play, but . . . there is a broader definition 
of the tem according to which it might truly stand as the aim and 
object of playt^Titing." Bentley feels that this greater sense of 
thought was described well by Hebbel when he said that "in drama no 
character should ever utter a thought; from the thought in a play come 
the speeches of all the characters. "^^ 

The experience of the play as a play, then, comes first in 
Bentley' s theory, but it is not an empty sensation: "Drama has to 
do both with conveying an experience and with telling truths about it." 
Meaning, along with the didacticism implied by it, is close to Bentley 's 
ultimate interest in and puipose for art, and is what leads him to rate 
art so highly as a human endeavor in a fragmented world: "All art 
serves as a lifeboat to rescue us from the ocean of meaninglessness--an 
extraordinaiy service to perfoim at any time and more than ever today 
when religion and philosophy prove less and less able to perform it."^^ 

Bentley has expounded a cogent view of realism based, as we 
have seen, on a particular view of society and the world, Many features 
of Bentley 's realism have previously been discussed in a piecemeal 
fashion; here they will be examined more coherently as his support for 


realism as the primaTy dramatic st>'le and for his explication of the 
nature of realism as both style and substance. Bentley's defense of 
realism as the "right" form for modern drama begins with his sense of 
the profound connection between drama and life, But since realism for 
him does not mean an exact copy of life but in art is dependent on 
a formed quality guided by artistic vision, realism must be a broad 
style focusing on a single substance: human essence. Because of realism's 
breadth, Bentley recognizes the necessary presence of non-realistic 
elements in realistic works. At the center of the realistic drama 
Bentley finds a dialectic of forces \\'hich impel dramatic action, forces 
which are presented in concrete human terms but are representative of 
values. Bentley also separates drama from the other arts to extend 
his support of realism, suggesting that dramatic art is uniquely concerned 
with man, especially as it is performed by living persons. The return 
of man to himself in his own, living image defines Bentley's essential 

The extensive presence of the dramatic in daily life emerges for 
Bentley as the ultimate connecting point between life and the drama. 
This link is more profound and less obvious than the surface similarity 
between the events in life and those in plays, There is an essential 
and deeply ingrained dramatism in life, a process of role playing 
whereby men make up, define, and then continually emend and redefine 
their vision of themselves and others; it is man's way of ]<nowing 
himself and the world of others. ^^ Pirandello, says Bentley, is aware 
of this process when he suggests that men create reality by the roles 
they play, the ultimate question being 'T^hat is real?" Bentley notes 


the bewildering conplexity o£ this process as it is described in 
"Pirandello's view o£ life: we men can only play roles, we cannot just 
be. . . . For us, then, the enactment, not the thing acted, remains the 
ultimate term. . . . Pretense is the ultimate reality. ""^^^ A drama- 
like process is itself the reality, and drama is the art which presents 
the form of this process. 

This view of reality, at least at the level of human relations, 
is bom out by both psychological and sociological researchers. Freud, 
who seems to be its modern scientific discoverer, spawned Jacob Moreno's 
psychodramas which Bentley calls "the most vivid evidence imaginable 
of the intimate link betiveen theatre and life."^°^ Bentley draws con- 
clusive evidence for the existence of this link from his realization 
that the essential subject matter of drama, the transformations, sub- 
stitutions, and realignments of the primal family scene, is presented 
directly from life in psychodrama, less directly (mediated by art) in 
drama proper. The stuff of psychodrama is the raw material of drama. 

By this view, drama shares an undeniable essence with life, but 
except in the plays of certain dramatists like Pirandello, drama does 
not focus on the more perplexing aspects and Freudian depths of the 
chaotic miasma of interpersonal relations. In fact, drama tends to 
overcome the tenuous nature of existence by giving form and stability 
to the welter of impressions from life. This is the nature of art: 


There is art only if the material of life is selected and intel- 
ligently arranged. Such arrangement is of course artificial. It 
imposes form on the formless. And the understanding of art depends 
upon a prior understanding of this fact. Nothing, therefore, that 
we take for reality can we also take for art. 102 

Thus, drama is both intmately linked and, to some extent, removed 
from life with the purpose, we have seen, of showing the truth about 
the central issues, forces, meanings, and drives, in short, the essence 
of life. For this reason Bentley finds unsatisfactory all attempts 
at slice-of-life naturalism and the transmission to the stage of the 
dreary neurasthenics of life. Bentley 's realism posits an intimate 
link between drama and life, but the two are not to be identical. For 
him, the naive realistic standard, "it was just like life," is at least 
insufficient . 

The extent to which artistic form is removed from life is flexible 
in Bentley, and therefore there is no one substance which may defini- 
tively be called realism. He defines realism "roughly and tentatively" 
as "the candid presentation of the natural world," and then goes on, as 
he must, to expand and explain the term. Like Erich Auerbach, he finds 

few limits to realism when there is an "attempt to be closer to the 

actual texture of daily living." Thus, stream-of -consciousness 

and other modem strategies may be seen as a development of realism. 

Bentley cannot conclusively define a list of terms which apply 

to realism. He even suggests that his o;^^ dichotomy between "realistic" 

and "anti-realistic" art is a construction that does not exist in 

reality. This is his list of the opposing nature of real and anti-real 

style, as well as his comments: 


slice of life vs. convention 
naturalism vs. fantasy 
social vs. individual 
political vs. religious 
propagandist vs. aesthetic 
prosaic irs. poetic 
objective vs. subjective 

It follows from my remarks about critical terms and the term 
realism in particular, that a ^^^:iteT may well be in the right- 
hand column in some respects and in the left-hand column in 
others. Nor are the pairs mutually exclusive. 104 

In fact, it is the presence of "non-realism" in some way within 

"realism" which defines the nature of the artistic vision; i. e., the 

style of realism is given texture and quality by non-realism: 

If no art, and no artist, can he ^iiolly realistic, it is always 
important to see in a work of realism what the non-realistic 
elements are. . . . The paradox of Ibsen's realistic tragedy is 
that It depends so much on non-realistic elements for its success. 105 

Bentley suggests that non-realism is a positive addition to a work: 
"Brecht is a realist, but non-realistic elements are of more and more 
importance as his art develops. "■'"'^^ 

Bentley is aware that the search of the anti -realist school is 
similar to his own. They too are seeking an essence, and where that 
essence is found within the bounds of meaningful hum,an experience, 
Bentley accepts the anti-realist style: "If an anti-realist can be 
showra to be at gri- s with reality, and not to be lost in technical 
dexterity, rococo ornament, or intellectual blah, there is nothing to 
hold against him." It is clearly the focus on style as style--the 
tendency of formalism to be overcome with its own effects --which Bentley 
decries. As long as the elements of non-realism are presented within a 
meaningful and dramatic framework, they may add much to the total work. 
Art and life must deviate in order for essences to be seen; the surface 
of life must be selected and even cracked to reach the truth. 


Again, Bentley mediates between extremes, the extremes of natural- 
ism and non-realism. He rejects each extreme for its distance from the 
realistic center, naturalism because it does not attain the status of 
art and non-realism because it leaves life behind. He also rejects them 
because they offer no value-meaning to the spectator. Neither extreme 
contains an acceptable world view for Bentley. 

Naturalism and expressionism, the twin poles of the Strindbergian 
mind, are two answers to the challenge of a Daruanian world. >hey 
are not philosophies. They are the two archtypical patterns of 
defeat m the modern world: defeat at the hands of a naturalistic 
nihilism and defeat at the hands of a compensatory supematuralism. 108 

That is to say that naturalism accepts a mechanistic determinism which 

ranoves man from the center of value, while expressionism hopes to 

overcome a Schopenhauer ean pass mi sm by reaching for some personal ideal 

(often through an excessive interest in man's individual neuroses) . 

Only realism, in Bentley's formulation, returns man to his pragmatist/ 

humanist center of value, uniting both social and individual concerns. 

The extreme poles of drama ignore the essential process which 

Bentley finds at the heart of the drama: dialectic. Dialectic is a 

heightened sense of conflict which reverberates on the ethical/moral plane. 

It is the primary dramatic method of getting to the essence of matters, 

according to Bentley, and it is based on actual conflicts ^^hich make 

up the drama of life. These conflicts, merely carried \\^ole to the 

stage by the naturalists are not sufficient. They tend merely to be 

pictures of characters' neuroses. Conflict becomes dialectic by the 

concretization of values, or "the great and complex moral conflicts 

which are the proper subject matter of modem drama. "''•^^ 


Nor do the expressionists and anti -realists reach the essence 
by avoiding the concrete side of dialectic. The dramatist carjiot 
directly grasp his essences, nor can he do away vdth the interpretive 
power of the mind which is brought into play by dialectic. The anti- 
realist attenpts to touch an essence without sufficient contact with 
human experience, which leads to an abstraction which denies art: "The 
purely human is as unreal an abstraction as the purely poetic and the 
purely theatrical. To leave out the intellect, the element of thought, 
is to deprive oneself of a great part of human awareness. "-^"^^ 

It is the dialectic which impels the action of the drama, for 

Bentley says that "a pla>^vright is a dialectician." In a real or human 

situation, the intellect is bound up with dialectic which must, in a 

drama of artistic merit, be a true dialectic, serious and concrete. 

l^Tiat^ the ^intelligence demands in the theatre (and I believe 
outside it too) is dialectics--a sense of the interplay of 
opposites. ... But where the Living Tlieatre offers 
opposites, they are so opposite that their interaction is 
abstract and unreal. . . . Dialectics means that a proposition 
elicits a counterproposition; and dramatists are people with a 
keen sense of this to and fro. Ill 

Bentley sets the drama apart as special to the arts, and this 
becomes a part of his defense of realism. He quotes Yeats to suggest 
the drama's special relationship to the essence of art: 'l\'hat attracts 
me to drama is that it is, in the most obvious way, what all the arts 
are upon a last analysis." Bentley says that although all art is 
"concerned with the bedrock of human experience," that drama is 
"peculiarly" concerned with this bedrock in that it is "more in- 
different than the other arts to whatever is not actually touching it."'^"'-^ 


Certainly if all art is about the essence of life, then the art which 

"presents himan relationships ... and nothing else" is ^dnusually 

focused on its subject.'^"'''^ 

Bentley uses this distinctiveness to support his analysis of 

the special nature of drama and to call for drama's separation from 
other arts based on its cvm unique fom and methods. Drama's unique 
quality is tliat it is both language-centered and intended for live 
perfoimance. The combination of language and perfoimance produces a 
singular character which should not misguidedly be blended with other 
arts: "Today I thinlc we would rather stress the legitimate differences 
bet;^'een the arts. Their territories may be adjacent, but they are not 
identical. "•^^'^ 

Language sets the drama apart from the visual and musical arts. 
Drama, "being presented through the mediimi of words, deals not only 
with affects, not only with objects ... but also with concepts which 
music cannot touch at all and which a libretto cannot very freely handle. "^'^^ 
Bentley sees the central presence of language as the first necessary 
element of the theatre, and therefore as proof of a pla>a^Tight ' s 
excellence: "S^urely, a drama not verbalized is a drama not dramatized; 
the subordination of the words to other theatre arts is the death of 
the drama." Imbedded in language is the expression of the dramatist's 
mind which is so important to Bentley, and the ability to handle language 
with some expressive beauty is crucial to dramatic art. 

In performance, the language of the play must lead back to the 
sources of language which are vast and often deeply buried. There is a 
need for realism in acting. The effect of Stanislavski 's work with the 


actor "is not necessarily to make words less important; it is rather, 
to make them more effective."-'-^'' The actor must discover the inner 
stimuli for language, must be in touch with the drives and motivations 
which eventuate in language. It is not just language, then, that 
suffuses dramatic art, but human personality and communication. Talking 
is man's ivay of dealing with re-lity, 

Because of the complex relationship between language and per- 
fomance, Bentley concludes that the unique quality of theatrical art 
is the presentation of the human experience by human beings in the full- 
ness of living. The drama, being only language, is iconic in a semantic 

way, whereas the theatre is directly iconic: it is a developing picture 

of life. Bentley makes much of this quality: "Tlie subject of drama 

being what is nowadays called 'interpersonal relations,' the art of the 

theatre, in which persons present persons to persons, is in a specially 

favorable position to set up live vibrations, . , , ""'■-^^ it is in the 

leap from drama- as -literature to drama-as-theatre that drama attains 

its true uniqueness, for only in the theatre does an audience directly 

confront himanity, both as a subject for study and as an embodiment of 

that subject: 

More exclusively than most other artists, the dramatist is 
concerned with the definition of man. Poet and painter may 
take a sunset for a subject; a pla\'UTight's primary job is' 
always to send actors out onto a stage, each actor not only 
being a man, but also representing a man, 120 

To use the ma- erial of the theatre- -men- -most effectively and fully 

.! is to support realism. This use requires no special art theory; 


to use men non-realistically requires more specific theory. 

.--..„.,«^,(lH-.,^(«rt^ti-»»^"<.^'— 'I 


Bentley therefore sees realism not only as the best fonn for 
the modem drama (arguing from an analysis of society's needs), but 
also, on the basis of an aesthetic analysis of subject matter and 
materials, the proper form for drama at any time. The concrete 
depiction of man is the fullest elaboration of the art. It is a broad 
realism, however, with boundaries far from the center. IVhere the 
pattern is intelligible, there is sufficient realism, Khere there 
is a subject matter bearing relation to human experience contained in 
the fonn, there is sufficient realism. The theatre must only remain 
faithful to the qualities of its primary materials --men- -and to its 
special nature: human characters "are presented to human beings by human 
beings, and this is a degree of actuality and humanity unique in the 
annals of art," 

Aesthetic Experience 
The experience of the play is the culmination of the aesthetic 
situation, especially in the public art of the theatre, Bentley's 
interest in the audience's experience of the play is concentrated on 
two general areas. First is the nature of audience perception of the 
theatrical event, the nature of intimacy and how the link between 
spectator and play can be enhanced. This includes the nature of the 
audience's reaction to the characters of the drama, the presence of empathy 
or identification as part of that reaction. Since Bentley feels that 
the audience watches with some detachment but also with empathy, aesthetic 
experience helps explain the combination of real and non-real which 
appear in his general theory. 


The second area has to do with the greater relationship of 
drama, and theatre to society, the nature of the perceiving community, 
including the effect of the play on the audience, which matter has been 
discussed in another context above, flere we shall see how Bentley 
criticizes both the commercial and the religious theatres' conceptions 
of the audience, how he replaces the idea of conmonality rath that of 
community and that of stasis with growth, for though art's nature is 
that of a formed and unified structure, its greatest effect is to move, 
shock (though not directly, on a purely sensuous level], and vivify. 

To achieve the ideal value relationship with the play, Bentley 
suggests that the audience must watch it in a special way. This seems 
to follow from his inclination to see the art object, the play, as a 
special kind of thing, an expressive portrayal of human events designed 
for perception not as reality, but as a vision of reality. Bentley 
feels that some form of detachment or distance is needed between the 
audience and the play- -not actual distance (though this may be called 
for), but something quite similar to v;hat Edward Bullough describes as 
"Psychical Distance." "" Bullough 's precepts appear to have influenced 
Bentley 's thinking on the nature of aesthetic experience and will be 
helpful in explicating this nature as well as that of art in general, 
especially ivhat Bullough calls art's "anti -realistic nature. """-^^ 

Bentley and Bullough share a similar view of the way the spectator 
looks at a play. Bentley begins to explain the nature of aesthetic 
perception by noting its difference from scientific inspection: "IVhen 
we watch, though we do not watch in the way we watch actual happenings, 
neither do we watch in the spirit of 'scientific detachment,' but always 
with some degree of emotional involvement." Bullough explains more 


explicitly how we can watch with detachment but with emotion through 
"psychical distance" which "does not ijnply an impersonal, purely intellec- 
tually interested relation of such a kind." Emotions enter our perception 
of art but in a peculiar way: "cleared of the practical, concrete nature 
of [their] appeal. , . . "■'-^^ 

The necessity of clearing the eraotions of "practical, concrete 
appeal" may be simplistically exemplified by the classic case of the 
yokel who jumps on stage to save Desdemona from "that black man," which 
is to say that distance perv^ades the knowledge of art as art. The danger 
of the spectator's coming too close to the art object in a practical 
way is that he will be under-distanced (as in the above case) and thus 
lose the proper benefit of the aesthetic relationship. The opposite 
danger would be for the spectator to become so disengaged with the art 
that no emotional contact could be made at all, a case of over -distance. 

Bentley uses the concept of under -distance to explain two more 
complex problems in the theatre. Loss of distance helps him explain 
the aesthetic difficulty of having a "star" perfonner in the cast of a 
play: "With Ingrid Bergman on the stage, it is doubtful whether you 
could have an evening of drama. . . , Around every movie star . , . there 
is a pink aureole of glamour which inhibits dramatic proceedings.""'"^^ 
Here the audience becomes under -distanced by taking a personal,, non- - 
aesthetic interest in the actress (or at least her professional persona) 
rather than in the character (aesthetic persona) she is playing. The 
need to have an audience watching with some detachment is at the basis 
of Bentley' 5 distaste for modem attenpts to return, in the theatre, 


to some kind of orgiastic religious rite: "Tlieatres presuppose an 
audience; orgies presuppose total participation and total absence of 

mere onlooking. Otherwise we get bogged down in those two rather chill- 

] 27 
mg perversions: exhibitionism and voyeurism." It is significant 

to note that total sensuous participation, without detachment, would 

leave no room for the mind which is crucial to Bentley's concept of 

theatre experience. 

The desire for some fonn of distance has made Bentley suspicious 

of too much literal intimacy in the theatre. The breaking of the 

physical barriers or space bet^veen the audience and the production can 

have a deleterious effect on perception, destroying the proper intimacy 

of the aesthetic response. He feels that "the spectator is entitled to 


a certain detachment." ^ Therefore it is self-defeating to preach 

the eradication of distance through 

the cult of intim.acy, which is based on false psychological 
assumptions, both as to i\hat is the normal relation of 
audience and actor and as to what can be done to upset it. 
Perhaps the root error is the notion that you can with 
impunity simply ignore the barrier between public and 
player and cross it like an abandoned frontier. 

The proof of this he sees in what actually happens ivhen the actors 
cross the barrier: "The spectator is non-plussed, embarassed, overpowered." ' 
Actual intimacy in the theatre is not the method of getting real intimacy 
which is achieved, paradoxically, through aesthetic or psychical dis- 
tance . 

Bentley's protest against the "cult of intimacy" --that it 
destroys intimacy- -is ex-plained by a "law" which Bullough calls the 
"antinomy of Distance." It is that "most desirable is the utmost 

decrease of distance wdthout its disappearance ." Considered 



a law governing physical space in the relation between actor and spectator, 

it shows the error of the intimacy cultists: they go too far by making 

distance disappear altogether. 

It is possible, however, to achieve great intimacy with some 

distance. Bentley describes his reaction to Growtowski's Apocal>'pse 

which seems to exemplify the effects of the "antinomy of Distance" 

rather conclusively: 

About halfway through the play I had a specific illumination. 
A message came to me--frora nowhere, as they say--about my 
private life and self. ... I don't recall this sort of 
thing happening to me in the theatre before. . . . 

Your theatre is redeemed, it seems to me, by just this 
peculiar intimacy. . . . WTien I see your theatre ... I 
note that your work ... is a corrective to everything that 
happens here in your name. ... In your theatre a spectator 
is a person and is allowed to keep his dignity, his individual 
separateness . Sometimes your actors come within inches of us, 
but tliey never lay hands on us, nor whisper in an individual 
ear. In the space our body occupies, we are inviolate. Now 
if the closeness to the actor brings us something extra, the 
fact that it is not a merger like sexTial intercourse seems to 
me equally important, embodying a dialectical law of art 
according to which, if there is closeness, it must be balanced 
and, as it were, canceled by distance. 131 

Bentley 's use of sex .as the metaphor for the ultimate in under-distancing 

is apt, for a personal sexual feeling is never aesthetically distanced; 

art is a sensuous realm, but "purified, spiritualized, 'filtered' ... by 


Aesthetic perception and the need to decrease distance without 
losing it offers valuable insight into Bentley 's concept of realism 
as the best st>'le for the modern theatre: by its nearness to the con- 
crete elements of life it tends to decrease distance. ^^ At the same time, 
it explains why Bentley is so interested in the non-realistic elements 
within realism: they maintain distance, enforcing the sense that what 
one sees is not life but art. 


In a similar way, Bentley's analysis of the broad range of 
form/ content relationships in realism relates to the functional span 
of psychical distance. Under and over-distancing mark the same polar 
extremes T\'hich are the limits to Bentley's realism: 1] a naturalism 
which will not achieve the distance necessary for art and 2) an idealism 
or anti-realism which will be so distanced, so abstract, that no con- 
tact can be made with the work. 

Distance as a mode of perception does not fully explain Bentley's 
total Adew of the audience's reaction to the play which includes a 
Freudian process of identification or empathy with the characters 
(when they are realistically portrayed). This process, the psychological 
element of audience perception, is notable more for its similarity to 
life than for its dissimilarity. At a subconscious level --which may of 
course be made conscious by reflection- -we react to characters in the 
drama in the same way we react to people in life, part of the "infantile 
basis of theatre." Bentley links all stage action and its subsequent 
appreciation by an audience to "two psychological processes . . . sub - 
stitution of all and sundr\^ persons for the few in one's own original 
background, and identification of oneself with someone else.' 
As an obvious proof of this, he offers the "crude" manner in which 
Broadway routinely delivers to its audiences a few characters who are 
easy to identify, surrounded by a clearly defined family. 

That audiences want to identify with characters --or that they 

must- -is commonly accepted. As a theory of audience response, this 

is generally referred to as "empathy." Bentley contrasts this 

common sense theory of empathy with Brecht's theor>^ of "alienation" 


which is meant to do away with ernpathy so that the audience may watch 
the play with a critical, scientific objectivity, fthat Brecht over- 
looked in his theory, according to Bentley, is the fact that a certain 
alienation has al\%'ays existed in the theatre--! think he is referring 
to distance, psychical or aesthetic- -and that along with this alienation 
come the inescapable substitution and identifications that are a nonnal 
psychological process for the audience. 

In this way Brecht 's theory becomes, for Bentley, another example 
of the distanced nature of all art. This is the anti -realistic nature 
of art mentioned above. ITiat Brecht has less empathy than Ibsenite 
realism is not to say that he does not have enough, for Bentley concludes 
that Brecht's works do have "stage-illusion, suspense, sympathy, identifica- 
tion." Achieving the distance proper for art does not automatically 
destroy the empathy which is also proper: "Beauty itself, fom itself, 
brings off the alienation effect; by making order out of chaos, it sets 

-| TO 

chaos at a distance where we can look at it." Alienation in Brecht 
may be seen as an aesthetic strategy ver>^ much in the mainstream of 
Western art, just as Bentley's realistic theory is neatly within this 

Though the purpose of Brecht's stragegy is to create distance, 
Bentley suggests that in one sense his theatricalism works to reduce 
distance as it reduces illusion, in effect coming "closer to the 
audience than does the illusionistic theatre." Illusion, be it of 
reality in naturalism or fantasy in s>'mbolism, is designed to bring the 
spectator into a created world, picking him> up at one end of the experience 


and dropping Mm at the other. "Brecht's stage is frankly in the same 
building, in the same room, as the audience; it is made out of the same 
\-iood as the auditorium and belongs to the same spiritual realm," The 
unity of the actor and the audience in one world, the fact that the play 
is presented openly as art and not as an illusion of life, bristles 
with "many philosophical and aesthetic implications." A theatre that 
does not pick up and drop the spectator but maintains a constant refer- 
ence to reality may be, says Bentley, a "superior strategy in that, 
precisely by effecting certain kinds of separation, it comes nearer to 
its audience in the end." Therefore, both tlie alienating effects and 
the destruction of illusion help the audience focus on the play as art 
work; the conditions and conventions created by Brecht in his plays 
allow him more elements to arrange, but only with the outcome of 
achieving greater contact with the spectator. Distance is important 
because it focuses attention on the artistic and spiritual, and Brecht's 

alienation, says Bentley, "is an instance of the principle: reculer 

pour mieux sauter .'' Distance increases aesthetic intimacy, 

It is possible that what has been seen in Bentley as an over- 
anphasis on the mental and intellectual qualities of drama is an out- 
growth of his intuitive grasp of art as experientiaily different from 
life, of the need for distance and anti-realism. The mind is very 
much aware of the methods of non- real ism, less aware of the methods of 
illusionistic realism. There is a contradiction here between Bentley's 
acceptance of alienation and distance (which tends to bring a focus 
to form) and his earlier espousal of naked content, with form receding 
to the background. But that contradiction is mitigated by the fact that 

■•■-*•* *•»! pr-i^^-m 


awareness of content is itself alienating from the undiscriminating gush 
of emotion and sentimentality found in numerous non-serious plays. 
Aesthetic anotion, washed of concrete appeal, seems to allow room for 
much awareness of the symbolic universality of the work of art. 

Bentley has also shown much interest in the social nature of the 
drama, apart from the specific nature of aesthetic perception. It is 
social man which makes up the audience at a play, and yet Bentley 's 
interest in both individual and society leads him to consider the 
communal rather than the mass characteristics of the audience response, 
leaving room for the individual within the collective. In addition, 
Bentley is aware of the need for pluralism within a general view of 
society, allowing for sub-groups within the wider collective, Bentley's 
analysis of society and audience response is a further instance of his 
criticism of commercialism and religious/"magical" dramatic theories. 

Bentley is aware of the theatre's dependence on a group for 
both its survival and growth. "Drama is a social art. Although it 
does not require the support of the masses or any large class, it does 
require a tradition that lives in some group homogeneous enough to make 
a crowd in the theatre. ""^^^ This describes the theatre's relation to 
society, and by extension that of the dramatist who must have a theatre 
in order to grow, must see his work in production. 

The serious theatre needs, not a mass audience, but one made up 
of concerned individuals, excited by the potential of the theatre and 
not merely seeking entertainment. The idea that an art should appeal 
to a mass is anathema to Bentley, who prefers the idea of community: 
"Now, one of the ugliest facts about this world is that it contains 



masses and not communities, and thus is given over to mass entertainment 
and not to communal imaginative experience." An appeal to the mass is 
predisposed to consider the lowest common denominator, an entertainment 
"valued chiefly as a relief from boredom, which is taken to be the normal 
state of mind." Wlnat is needed is a community, "an assembly of fully 

human beings with something in canmon, something relevant to the 

occasion." Bentley is searching for the qualities which will lead 

to an active interest in an experience that has growth potential, an 

audience that is alive, aware, interested, and focused- -the kind of 

audience one often finds at dance recitals or concerts --people interested 

in the subject matter rather than people demanding arLUsement. 

Bentley implies not only that such an audience does exist for 
theatre, but also that it can be fostered and made to grow. l\Tiat is 
necessary to develop an audience is to separate those interested only 
in amusement from those who are more intellectually and aesthetically 
inclined. He is not developing a dual aesthetic, one for the m.asses 
and one for an elite commiUnit)'. He maintains a single aesthetic of excel- 
lence, and wishes to see some place established, within the commercially 
oriented theatre world, for a serious art theatre. Bentley 's call for 
serious standards in the theatre is more affected by audience than a 
similar call in any other art form precisely because of theatre's public 
nature and the difficulty of its existence without community support. 

Finally, in considering the nature of the audience and its 
reaction, Bentley is wary of psychological and political assumptions, 
as he calls them, which seek to deny the individuality of the aesthetic 


response. The psychological assumption is made primarily by the proponents 
of a naive religious theatre ^iio, like Artaud, see the experience of 
theatre as merging the individual audience members into a common whole. 
Bentley attacks this concept at its psychological base (are primative 
group emotions really better than more adult and individual ones?) 
and from its political implications ("mystical theories of the theatre 
have been fostered by the modem flight from freedom, from decisions, 
from the self"). Similarly, he attacks the political assumption that 
"a healthy community consists of individuals with identical opinions, 
and that theatre requires such a community since it requires a united 
audience" as mere "totalitarianism," It is perfectly in accord with 
Bentley' s psychological, political, and aesthetic views that he would 
conclude that "the group spirit of an audience is based on common 
acceptance of the drama, not on a common interpretation of it."''"'^^ 
Given distance, given aesthetic awareness, given a communal 
sense in which an individual response is valid, what is the effect 
of theatre on the spectator? l\Tiat kind of experience does Bentley 
feel he should have? That is to say, what is the value-function of 
theatre, its purpose, seen from the perspective of the experience of 
the art work? Like the relativist description of the subjective and 
objective sides of critical appreciation, the experience depends on 
strong feeling; like the contextual ist, the experience must be distilled 
and intensified. 


In Life , Bentley so strongly emphasizes the emotional content 
of the theatrical experience that it is no T%T)nder he was afraid t?iat 

people would thinlc he had completely reversed his position from previous 

books. He clarifies his feelings about emotion to show how they are 

based on concrete objects in the play and are quite often fused with 

ideas. Yet emotion is primary: "The living experience of a play, as 

of a novel, or a piece of music, is a river of feeling within us. , . . "-^^^ 

This river of motion is of a particular kind, based on human needs: 

"A main reason for going to a play, as for reading a novel, will always 

be the need for emotions that are coherent and continuous as well as 

strong." Emotion and experience are fused, and the quality of this 

fusion in art is always the contextualist one of strength and vidid- 

ness: "l\'hen they expose themselves to an art human beings are seeking 

an intensification of their normal experience." This ex-plains the 

playwright's desire to discover material that pierces the conventional 

and the ordinary, a desire to find a "heightened mode of existence" 

so that the audience may be "astonished at revelations of the unsuspected, "-'■'^' 

The effect of such experience on the spectator is, like Aristotle's 

catharsis , difficult to define, but it is to be a particularly vivid 

learning experience, just as experience generally, when it is genuine, 

is learning. Moving aesthetic experiences transfigure the ever>'day 

world from a welter of impressions into a whole where human essences 

are grasped. Both tragedy and comedy transcend the negative situations 

from which they grow. It is an "aesthetic transcendence (of art over 

life), and a transcending emotion (awe in tragedy, joy in comedy}.'" 


For Bentley, this transcendance has an irrational character, in that 
it lifts man's spirit "in defiance of the stated facts," yet both 
tragedy and comedy have the "same heuristic intent: self-knowledge."''"^^ 
It is as though the intensified experience/emotion of art lifts the 
individual to new levels of awareness --and not necessarily intellectual 
awareness. This is the function of art generally, but Bentley sees it 
as especially important in fragmented and experience -poor modem society. 
The "vehemence of attack" of modern art "is called for both by the condi- 
tions which provoke it and the torpor of the public that is addressed. . 
Modern art is upsetting . ..." The reason that people will court such 
an upsetting experience, that there is an audience for modem art, is 
that the experience is "a shaking into life." A great play can be 
a "revelation;" scales may fall from the eyes, and suddenly one may 
both see and live. This is the pleasure behind the experience of art. 



1. Bentlev sees himself as unifying ttvo older views vinen he 
relates drama to theatre; the outcome is still traditional: "IVe shall 
rediscover utiat plays are only when we transcend both the narrowly 
theatrical and the narrowly academic (miscalled 'literary') approach 
and see a play as a whole- -that is, as the work of a ^ATiter designed 
for the theatre. It must be perfonnable. It must be able to reach its 
fullest meaning in production. But it is also a treatment of a sub- 
ject and an expression of an artist's mind. The play;^Tight conceives 
the whole thing as it should be on the stage, just as a composer con- 
ceives a symphony that is later transmitted to us from the concert 
platform." Bentley, Search , p. 15. 

2. I have adapted this list from Hilda Hein's compilation 
in "Performance as an Aesthetic Category," Journal of A esthetics 

and Art Criticism , XX\aiI (Spring, 1970), 381-6. In this article, Hein 
argues against the view taken by Bentley, that the performer is an 
interpreter, and seeks to establish performance as a separate art. 
Later I will show (Ch. Ill) Bentley 's awareness of acting as a separate 
art from drama. 

3. Bentley has offered much insight into the depth of his studv 
of psychology by recounting the genesis and development of what is 
arguably his most important book. Life , which he has called "the 
nearest I've gotten to a theory of the drama." It appears that at 
least three factors came together to form the content of the six 
lectures which Bentley delivered at Harvard in 1960-61, later re\\Titten 
as the book. One of them was a Freudian analysis which Bentley underwent 
during 1957-1960, an analysis which not only helped him personally, 

but also led him to intensified research on Freud in whom he had pre- 
viously maintained a long personal and professional interest. A second 
factor ^^ras that w^hile in analysis he worked on the introduction to a 
book of French farces, Let's Get A Divorce ! (New York: Hill and Wang, 
1958), and, influenced by Freud's theory of humor, produced the essay 
"The _ Psychology of Farce." After "discovering" that farce, commonly' 
considered a minor form, actually had a serious psychology involving 
the release of supressed desires at its base, he went on to re-evaluate 
melodrama and other basic forms for their psychological ijnport. The 
farce essay was "the trunk from which the branches came." Though his 
study of Freud helped generate the book, Bentley today sees its greatest 
problem as a slavish devotion to Freud, an almost blinding need to 
acknowledge the master. 

The third influencing factor is th^:^ guide to the book's concept. 
Bentley notes that the theory of drama which emerges in the book is not 
the Brechtian one uhich many expected of him, but" is Pirandellian 
developed from Pirandello's idea that "life is theatre," THough the idea 
comes from Pirandello and not from modem psychology, Bentley is aware 
of its interaction mth the theories of Freud himself, Erving Goffman, 
and Jacob Moreno. The book is more individually oriented than socio- 
logically. Bentley says "It is a totally psychological book with a 
little philosophy around the psychology- -the little philosophy is Pirandello." 



4. Bentley, What, p. 265. 

5. Bentley, Commitment , p. 177. 

6. Bentley, Life , p. 15. 

7. Bentley, Event , p. 150. 

8. Bentley, Thinter, p. 166. 

9. Ibid , p. 71. 

10. Bentley, War, p. 68. 

11. Bentley, ThinJcer, p. 187. 

12. Bentley, Commitment , p. 106. 

13. Bentley 's view is quite similar to that of R. G. Colling^^'ood 
who distinguishes between art and craft along these same lines in The 
Principles of Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958), CH. II. 

14. Bentley, What, p. 256. 

15. Ibid ., p. 262. 

16. Ibid ., p. 256. 

17. Bentley, Commitment , p. 168. 

18. Bentley, What, pp. 256-7. 

19. Bentley, Search , p. 60. 

20. Bentley, Thinter, p. 54. 

21. Bentley, What , p. 264. 

22. Ibid . 

23. Bentley, Commitment , p. 115. 

24. Bentley, IVhat , p. 267. 

25. Bentley, Bernard Shaw , pp. 104-5. 

26. Bentley, What, p. 264. 

27. Bentley, Life, p. 6. 

28. Ibid., pp. 9-12. 


29. Ibid ., pp. 35-6. 

30. Ibid., p. 59. 

31. Ibid ., p. 65. 

32. Considering the coinmon background of pragmatism, the similar- 
ities between Bentley and John Dewey's Art as Experience (Nev York: 
Capricorn Books, 1958) are not very surprising. Dewey says that we 
turn to art to have a kind of experience that is not common in life 

(Ch. Ill) and that since we do live in a world in which suspense, 
crisis, and resolution exist, that art must reflect these real qualities 
(pp. 16-17), 

33. Bentley, Life , pp. 53-4, 
34- Ibid., pp. 45-50. 

35. Ibid . , p. 43. 

36. Bentley, Thinker , p. 227. 

37. Ibid., p. 220. 

38. Bentley, War , p. 11. 

39. Bentley, Search , p. 4. 

40. Bentley, IVhat , p. 266. 

41. Bentley, IVar, p. 339. 

42. Bentley, UTiat , p. 179. 

43. Ibid ., p. 126. 

44. Bentley, Search , p. 91. 

45. Bentley, What, p. 15. 

46. Bentley, Search , p. 169. 

47. Bentley, Search , p. 42. 

48. Bentley, Thinker, p. 169. 

49. Bentley, What, p. 254. 

50. Bentley, Thinker , p. 2. 

51. Ibid., p. 7. 

52. Ibid . , pp. 182-3. 


53. Ibid ., p. 168. 

54. Bentley, War, p,, 383, 

55. Bentley, IMnker, p. 46. 

56. Bentley, Search , p, 50, 

57. Ibid ., p. 93. 

58. Ibid., p. 77. 

59. Ibid., p. 6. 

60. Bentley, Life, p. 105. 

61. Kenneth Burke, Counter- Statement (Los Altos, Cal.: Hermes 
Publications, 1953], p. 31. 


Bentley, Life , p. 13. 
Ibid ., p. 29. 
Burke, op. cit . , p. 35. 
Ibid ., p. 41, 

Bentley summarizes the controversy: "Some have said that 
the end of drama, and art in general, is pleasure, and others have said 
that it is instruction. ..." What, p. 251, 

67. Bentley, War , p. 346. Bentley 's critique of society could 

be made from a variet>^ of political positions. Considering his socialism, 
however, this appears to be part of a Marxist orientation softened by 
liberal humanism. 

68. Bentley, Thinker , p. 233. 

69. Bentley, What, p. 252, 

70. Bentley, Coirmitment , p, 193. 

71. Bentley, Life , p. Ill, 

72. Aristotle: "To be learning something is the greatest of 
pleasures not only to the philosopher but also to the rest of man- 
kind. ..." In Life , p. 112. Butcher's analysis of Aristotle's 
Poetics concludes that art's "end is pleasure, but the pleasure peculiar 
to that state of enjoyment in which perfect repose is united with 
perfect energy." I. e., a pleasure which is good for mankind. In l\hat, 
p. 252. 

t r'^''*.=5*s>'-|=!»«iH)3;^i«yrT'si •^.•—^•y*t*<-'m-» 


73. Bentley, Thiiiker, pp. 219-20. Kenneth Burke reaches a similar, 
though directly political and much more sharply defined, conclusion in 
"The Nature of Art Under Capitalism," in The Philosophy of Literarv Form 
(New York: Vintage Books, 1961) . "Hence we feel that tHe moral breicTT 
arising from vitiation of the work-patrems calls for a propaganda art." 
p. 277, 

74. Bentley, Life , p. 112. 

75. Bentley, War, p. 339. 

76. Bentley quotes from Walter Kerr's How Not to Write a Play 
(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1955) in What , p. 258^ 

77. Bentley, What , p. 260. 

78. Rudolf Arnheim, "The Expressiveness of Visual Forms," 
in Rader, op. cit . , p. 316. 

79. Bentley, Commitment , pp. 195-6. 

80. Ibid ., pp. 196-9. 

81. Ibid., pp. 222-3. This is Bentley's later view of Brecht, 
His earlier statement (p. 63) about the deadening effect of final truth 
on creativity, v\'-hile it may retain some validity as a generalization 
and some instances, has been superceded in the case of Brecht. In the 
interview, Bentley expressed some wonderment that he ever would have 
considered Brecht 's Marxism a negative factor in the art. 

82. Ibid ., p. 228. 

83. Ibid ., p. 225. 

84. Some took Play^rright as the explication of a totally intellectu- 
alist aesthetic, but Bentley has tried to make his position there very 
clear: "It takes as its starting point the undoubted fact that ideas 

are much more prominent in modem than in older drama; it shows that some 
modeim plays are 'drama of ideas' in the special sense that ideas are 
not simply used but questioned and discussed; but it does not suggest 
that an Ibsen or a Shaw or a Pirandello can be a successful plav-v.Tight 
by mere brainpower or idea mongering. It assumes aesthetic criteria and 
defends the thinking pla>'wright, not against Shakespeare and Sophocles, 
but against the unthinking play-wrrights of Broadway and West End." 
Thinker , p. 258. In this section and the previous I discuss Bentley's 
sociological reasons for admiring the "drama of ideas." 

85. Bentley, Life , p. 104. 

86. Ibid ., p. 108. 

87. Bentley, Search , p. 47. 

88. Bentley, Event , p, 72, 

89. Bentley, Search , pp. 57-8. 


90. Bentley, Life , p. 142. Again, his views about the "drama of 
outrage" presume the playwright may explore a valid point of view about 
his material. 

91. Bentley, Life , pp. 90-1. 

92. Bentley, Thinker , p. 51. 

93. Ibid ., p. 110. 

94. Ibid ., p. 106. 

95. Bentley, Bernard Shaw , p. 118, 

96. Ibid., pp. 129-30. 

97. Bentley, Life , p. 146. 

98. Ibid., pp. 145-7. 

99. Janet Malcolm describes the bleak prospects of this process 
as it aipears in Freud: "... the most precious and inviolate of 
entities --personal relations --is actually a messy jungle of misappre- 
hensions, at best an imeasy truce betiveen powerful solitary fantasy 
systems. . . . We cannot Icnow each other. We must grope around for 
each other. ... We cannot see each other plain." "Profiles (Aaron 
Green--Part I)," The New Yorker , November 24, 1980, p. 56. 

100. Bentley, Life , p, 191. 

101. Ibid ., 187. 

102. Bentley, Thinker, p. 14. 

103. Ibid ., p. 4. 

104. Ibid ., p. 21. 

105. Ibid ., p. 93. 

106. Ibid ., p. 220. 

107. Bentley, Search , p. x. 

108. Bentley, Thinker , p. 41. Tliere is evidence here and else- 
where that Bentley does not separate the theoretical movements of expres- 
sionism and symbolism as completely as he might. 

109. Bentley, Wiat , p. 4. 

110. Bentley, Thinker , p. 204. 

111. Bentley, War , p. 352. 

112. Bentley, Search , p. ix. 

113. Bentley, Life, 62-3. 


114. Bentley, Thinker , p. 64. 

115. Ibid ., p. 61. 

116. Ibid ., p. 46. 

117. Bentley, Event , p. 84. 

118. Following Virgil Aldrich's definition o£ "material" as those 
physical elements which the artist uses to form art works, we may see 
the prhTiary material of literature (drama) as written language and the 
primary material of theatre as men. The subject matter of literature 
may be life, but its materials are essentially different, whereas in 
the theatre, the subject matter- -man- -and the material- -man- -are the 
same. This speaks in favor of Bentley 's point. See: Virgil Aldrich, 
Philosophy of Art (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice Hall, 1963), Ch.II. 

119. Bentley, War, p. 346, 

120. Bentley, Event , p. 144, 

121. Bentley, War, p. 345. 

122. Edward Bullough, "Psychical Distance," in Rader, o^. cit . , 
pp. 368-84. Theories of aesthetic perception which emphasize distance 
suggest that the spectator is disengaged from ordinary looking and 
re-engaged in an aesthetic way of looking that is essentially different 
from ordinary perception. The extent to which Bentley thinks there is 
a unique form of experience called "aesthetic" is difficult to tell 
since he does not systematically develop his view of perception. I will 
discuss "distance" in Bentley as different in character from ordinary 
perception though not different in kind, Bentley is aware of Bullough 's 
article which he calls "much quoted," Life , p. 40, 

123. Bullough, "Psychical Distance," p. 377. 

124. Bentley, Life, p. 156. 

125. Bullough, loc. cit., pp. 371-2. 

126. Bentley, Search , p. 8. . 

127. Bentley, War, p. 353. 

128. Bentley, Search , p. 144. In the physical arrangement of the 
theatre space, Bentley is partial to the proscenium stage and the 
Greek stage where the audience sat above the performance. 

129. Bentley, War, p. 353. 

130. Bullough, p. 373. 

131. Bentley, War, p. 381. 

132. Bullough, p. 383. 


133. Considering Bentley's sociological analysis, this will be 
especially true in a society that lacks common beliefs or conventions, 
The non- real is tic theatre tends to be more dependent on theory than 
the realistic (there is proof for this in the often-noted "fact" that 
greater knowledge and sophistication about art leads to greater ability 
to appreciate the non-real or stylized), and therefore the non-real 
requires a good deal of cohesive knowledge to make its intentions under- 

134. Bentley, Life, pp. 157-60. 

135. Bentley is aware that empathy as used here is different 
from Vernon Lee ' s theory of Einfuhlung which is one explanation of 
how human qualities are transferred to visual arts. Life , p. 160. 

136. Ibid ., pp. 161^2, 

137. Bentley, Thinker , pp. 218-20, 

138. Bentley, Search, p. 145. 

139. Ibid ., p. 144. 

140. Bentley, Thinker , p. 189. 

141. Bentley, Search , p. 36, 

142. Ibid ,, pp. 363-4. 

143. He expressed this concern in the interview. 

144. Bentley, Life, p. 3. 

145. Ibid ., p. 39. 

146. Bentley, War, p. 338. 

147. Bentley, Commitment , pp. 181-2, 

148. Bentley, Life , pp. 308-9. 

149. Ibid . , pp. 344-5. Tliere is some implication here and in 
the section on the Function of Art that Bentley sees art's purpose as 
breaking down old patterns, freeing the mind and the spirit, creating 
more disorder than order. Such a theor)' of disorder receives full 
discussion in Morse Peckham's Man's Rage for Chaos (Philadelphia: 
Chilton Books, 1965). 



Bentley, we have seen, focuses his theory on the drama. The 
play is the expression o£ an artist's vision which contains the central 
plsn for the theatrical production. This view places the arts of the 
theatre- -acting, directing, and design- -at the service of the drama, 
their purpose being to make manifest the qualities which the dramatist 
has created in the play. Although he is aware of both the necessity 
for and the power of the arts of theatrical presentation, Bentley 
considers them to be "empty" \vhen not tied intimately to the presenta- 
tion of a good play. "Theatricalism," the sense of what the arts of 
theatre add to the play, is an important element in the dram.a for 
Bentley, but he is suspicious of the power of the theatre to take prec- 
edence over the drama. Ke therefore condemns the "theatricalism" of 
those theorists and practitioners who place the arts of theatrical 
presentation before those of the drama. 

The central Importance of the drama is so firmly seated in 
Bentley that he gives it continual emphasis. His focus on the v,Titten 
play led him, as drama critic of a weekly journal, to tr\' to read as 
many of the plays he reviewed as possible. He felt that reading helped 
fund his judgment of the dramatic quality of the plays he reviewed to 


■■- ■^'■— ^j i*t<v'''iiJ*K''« 


a greater extent than he might have done from production alone. And 

because of his strong attachment to drama, he declined \\Titing about 

acting, when it was not in relation to dramatic content: 

I have m.ade a large motional investment in dramaturgy. l\hat- 
ever J may think , I feel that the play's the thing. ... I have 
never been coaxed out of it by outstanding performers who appear 
in bad plays . . . but only by some few who can do without plays 
altogether, such as Charlie Chaplin and Martha Graham- -whom it is 
also possible, incidently, to regard as playwrights, 1 

Although he refuses to consider the theatrical arts apart from 
drama, Bentley recognizes their importance and their necessary relation- 
ship to the drama. In his view, a good play contains a sense of the 
theatrical. The playwright designs a play for performance in the 
theatre; he creates roles that have histrionic viability and he devises 
a structure that will transmit his drama with force in the theatre: 
"In any art that requires performance, the matter of performance enters in- 
to the process of creation and modifies the nature of the art itself."^ 
Bentley is aware that the concept of performance is prior to the drama, 
for without the idea of performance, there would be no reason for 
wTiting plays. On a practical level, he sees the playivTight's need 
to make his way in the theatre in order to write great plays, offering, 
as example, the case of Yeats who perhaps never wTote "great" plays 
because of his distrust of and distaste for the theatre and its commer- 
cial relationship to crass society."^ 

Bentley 's conviction that the drama is central to the theatre 
is an outgrowth of his desire for meaning in the drama and of his 
emphasis on structure and the Aristotelian quality of organic unity in 
the play. Since meaning is tied to language, the pla>nvi-ight 's work is 


primary. Also, since for Bentley the real power of the play lies in 
a strong dramatic structure, a playuTight is needed to create this 
structure. In the theatre the play becomes the central guide to presenta- 
tion, offering a unified design, a structure to which the meaning of 
the play is bound. In Bentley 's view, the playv,Tight controls the 
theatrical presentation through the play. IVhen the responsibility for 
design unity and meaning are shifted in great measure to actors or the 
director, then they take on the function of playwright. 

The issue of design unity is complex because it is difficult 
to specify an exact, ideal, or standard design and meaning for each 
play. The theatrical presentation of a play is subject to what amounts 
to an infinity of variables which depend on the many artists who complete 
the design. Most critics would agree- -Bentley among them--that there 
are limits within which the meaning of a dramatic work must be contained, 
but there is room for much x'-ariability of judgment within those limits. 
In the theatre, as in other arts, the principal organizing function of 
ex-pressive design cannot be escaped, and for Bentley it must come through 
the dramatic form of the work, whether it is written by one person, 
developed improvisationally by a groi;:p of actors, or provided by a 
director working on a script in his own particular manner. 

Bentley' 5 view that the dramatic script is a work of art largely 
complete in itself- -and that presentation merely tends to extend this 
completeness- -contrasts with a strong movement in modem theatre 
aesthetics to consider the drama as merely the basis on whjch a separate 
work of theatre is developed. Many modem theoreticians take the text 


as a "pre- text"' which will be the basis, not for an interpretation, but 
for a confrontation in which actors and directors will discover and 
develop in the script those things which interest or impress them 
in the process of their own artistic search and expression. WTiere 
Bentley sees the play as coherent, others see it as an incomplete 
structure ^^Ihich can only be completed by the process of theatrical 
discovery. Bentley is concerned with the meaning of the play which 
the actors and director agree upon in rehearsal and present. 
Directors like Richard Schechner are primarily interested in the work's 
meaning as it reverberates for the actors and director within the context 
of their production and which, in addition, can only be discovered 
through the process of production. Bentley 's view is that the theatre 
stabilizes around the dramatic art work. The contrasting view is that 
theatrical art is wrought by theatre artists, and that not only each 
production, but each performance of a play is a separate art work. 

At base, this modem view that value and truth in a play are 
rediscovered in each production posits an even less stable world than 
Bentley' s. As a rational humanist Bentley assumes that the pla)Tvright 
has expressed a vision of reality which remains, within certain cultural 
and historical brands, constant. Schechner assumes much less constancy, 
and that actors create this vision each time they go on stage. 

Though these views are radically different, in practice Bentley 
would have little argument with the modem school if the product of 
the creative search and expression of director and actors were meaningful, 
neither reductive of the complex and concrete wnrld of the play nor in 


itself shallow or unintelligent. He would simply return to his overall 
theory and note that a new play was being formed. l\here value-expressive 
content, embodied in well -formed dialogue, plot, and action are at the 
center of drama and performance, both are valid. 

In condemning "theatricalism," it is not the theatre Bentley is 
against. His stance is, once more, non- extremist, in that he asks 
the dramatist not to rely excessively on the effects of the theatre 
which are undeniably pleasing to an audience. His caution with 
theatricality is not a denial of its necessity, but an aesthetic argu- 
ment against excess, hollow effect, and a focus on technique which 
emerges prior to and apart from the meaning of the work. He cautions 
the dramatist not to over -emphasize the theatrical to the detriment of 
the dramatic: 

Schiller is theatrical alike in the good and the bad sense. He 
knows and respects the theatrical medium. He can think in tems of 
stage spectacle and stage movement. His notes, his stage directions, 
his work in the theatre, not to mention the main body of his drama, 
bear witness to an interest in the effects of actual production on 
an audience. And he goes too far. 6 

Bentley is suspicious of the power of the theatre to over- 
power the drama, of the power of theatricality when it is cut off 
from good drama. He decries both the craftsman -like ability of the 
play\vTight to produce theatrical images without substance and the 
ability of theatre artists to achieve a pleasing and even moving form 
through excellence in acting, design, and lighting, even when there is 
no viable drama. His campaign against the negative force of theatricalism 
is based on the schizm which may occur bet^A^een the dramatic and the 
theatrical- -in a sense, between content and form. It is directed 


against three groups: 1) playwrights, generally in the commercial school, 

who substitute vigorous theatrical form for true search and substance; 

2) critics and academics who emphasize theatricalism as though it were 

the point or desired end of theatre; and 3) serious theatre artists who 

emphasize the elements of theatrical production as though they alone 

were the crucial elements of the art. 

The negative character of groups 1) and 2) is based on the 

substitution of formulas for artistic search and has its source in the 

product -orientation of commercialism- -a search for salable entertainment 

rather than substantive meanings. Even when not commercially oriented, 

the commercial model perv^ades the idea that the modes of the theatre 

can be learned and applied to the production of any play, which is the 

methodology of institutions which teach theatre in this country: emphasis 

is on the theatre as such. 

The standard became a doctrine, the central doctrine of drama in 
the schools and universities today: that drama is not primarily 
a form of poetry, a vision of life, and expression of the dramatist 's 
nature, or anything comparable to other works of art, but a matter 
of theatrical technique in which the chief factor is the existence 
of an audience. Theatre is a means of communication, and nobody 
is to ask what is communicated. 7 

Bentley speaks of the Anerican use of the word "theatre" to designate 

an art in itself, one based rather grossly on formal properties which 

will have an impact on an audience. Mien these properties are made 

into the single criterion for judging quality, apart from content, 

then what results is one level of form-content split. The American use 

of the word "theatre" as a criterion has been noted by other commentators: 


Unfortunately the true iT>earJng of tlie .American word "theatre" has 
been blunted by coinmoii usage. IVhen they say nov; that a play 
is "good theatre", or "bad theatre", tiiey mean that it has 
pimch or is tediously lacking in it--in brief that it is, or is 
not, vigorously theatrical: and they are able to declare that, 
though a piece nas no genuine critical value, it is, for all that, 
good theatre. 8 

Bentley's point is that vigorous theatricality is not the source of 
excellence in the theatre, Tliat source is in the form and ineaning of 
the play. 

Bentley is able to reach a c nclusive judgment about the 
tlieatricalisiTi of the commercial theatre, but about the theatrical ism 
of the non-realist avant-garde he has some mixed feelings. Though 
he is predisposed by theory not to like the formalism of the expression- 
ists and other non-realists like Cocteau, he is not immune to their 
search for theatrical substance, Bentley is aware of the ex-pressive 
quality of beauty, and he appreciates a certain amiount of free or 
fornial expression even wrien he eventually condemns it for mean.ingless- 
ness. He says that botli Cocteau and the German expressionists, tliough 
they made "genuine attem^pts to grapple -.dtJi real and cnielly difficult 


theatrical problems . . . suffered from hollowness."- 

Bentley does some shifting befaveen understanding expressionism 
and disFiissirig it. He says that "the theatre maniacs v.-ere the making 
of expressionism. They needed a drama without substance, so that light 
and color and design could have pride of place."" Yet he defends The 
Ghost Sonata against critic Bernard Diebold's charge that it is a 
theatricalist evasion of the problemi of weak dramaturgy by asserting 
that the play has a "core" of meaning expressed in "superficial qualities: 
color J rhythm, shifting tempi, elan, cleverness, atmosphere, and 
theatricality." ^ He applauds Rarrault's direction of The Plague 


for bringing the drama into sharp and physical focus (theatre being a 
"highly physical art"): "Barrault brought to Camus' only semidramatized 
idea his sense of color and visual form, of sound and rhythm, of actors 
as individual bodies and as bodies in groups, and made of it a musical - 

1 7 

choreographic work. ..."'' He recognizes the good in Cocteau's 
"fantastic, hilarious, grotesque, and somehow moving terms," his "rich- 
ness of texture," but finally rejects his "awful vacuity ... a 
deliberate but in no way justified m.eaninglessness." 

It is clear that the cognitive demands based on concrete 
representation of life divert Bentley from such non-realism. He counters 
Cocteau's desire that people "believe" rather than "understand" his 
works by asking "how can one decide what to believe except by under- 
standing the rather various and mutually incompatible possibilities?" 
Ultimately, for Bentley, texture in the theatrical eleinents of the 
play and atmospherics created by lighting and music are no substitute 
for plot. Plot is a dramatic element, the spine of the drama, the 
central forming element of a play. Plot, or some identifiable dramatic 
structure, is what is lacking in the non-realistic plays which lie 
outside of Bentley' s appreciation. He also disagrees with Jobji Van 
Druten's endorsement of the so-called "plotless" play, pointing out 
that The Cherry Orchard , Member of the Wedding , and The Glass Menagerie 
are not without structure, but merely have a more subtle and submerged 
structure than the well-made play. The play of "atmosphere" is often 

supported by stagecraft and lighting. Bentley prefers a play \\hich is 

1 7 
plot and not much else to a play \\hich is many things \\lthout plot. 

In the theatre, as in the drama, we return to the importance of 

form- -for that is what plot is- -to explain the power of the play as an art. 


This power is involved with the theatrical, but not limited to it. It 
grows out o£ the dramatic form which unfolds, through time, on the 
stage. This is important; since theatre is a time art, its form is not 
immediately perceived and the spectator is not attracted by a whole 
form but by an "anticipation of completion" of a form which he knov;s 
(in a really good play) to be complete.-^ As in Burke's "eloquence," 
an appetite is aroused and then satisfied. Dramatic form is "in suspense" 
until the unfolding is complete and the appetite is satisfied. The 
arts of theatrical presentation cannot, of themselves, account for 
the process of dramatic form. They can only show a surface movement 
or make a strong sensory impression. The play's "commanding form which 
the author has composed by writing the lines of the play" is necessary,''"^ 
and it fuses the actor and visual elements of the production into a 
whole. The effects of the theatre stem from dramatic form as embodied 
in a theatrical medium, and for this reason Bentley subsumes the theatrical 
within the dramatic. 

Although Bentley sees the art of acting as tied to the demands 
of the drama, he also recognizes it as primary to the drama (both 

historically and conceptually), because without the idea of performance, 

there would be no drama. Both the concept and the art of acting 

permeate the job of the playwright. "Of course," Bentley tells an 

aspiring playwright, "it is true that playivrights must learn the art 

of the theatre, and above all its central art: that of acting." 


Though the play is the central plan for the theatre, the actor is the 
expressive medium and, as we have seen, must be taken into account from 
the point of conception of the play. Not only the playwright, but also 
the critic must fcaow the art of acting, for "there is much in the 
dramatic arts that literary criticism does little to help us under- 



Bentley's view of acting, its process and its style, fits well 
within his general aesthetic: the actor is involved in an expressive 
and vital representation of human essences, not in sheer imitative 
naturalism. The poles of naturalism and anti-realism are represented, 
in acting, by "empathy" and "alienation"- -roughly corresponding to 
Stanislavskian and Brechtian theories- -and for Bentley the best acting 
partakes of the dialectic between the two. The actor is himself an 
artist, and he creates a performance in which truth is expressed. His 
o^^m psychology is part of his material, as are the words of the play 
he is acting, but it is a personality stripped of idiosyncracy and 
converted into aesthetic stuff. Even more directly than he suggests 
that the playnvright cannot become great on the basis of mere brain power, 
Bentley strongly suggests that the artistry of acting may be intuitive 
rather than intellectual. Perhaps this is because the art of acting 
cannot of itself be seen to mean anything, but certainly in his 
discussion of acting, Bentley takes closer account of the intuitive. 

That Bentley should consider acting as central to the drama 
fits well with his view of the basis of drama in life. Acting is the 
art which most directly relates to Aristotle's identification of 


imitation as a basic urge found in children and men. The Freudian 
role playing o£ life is also mirrored directly in acting, for the actor 
makes conscious and deliberate a process of personality discover)' which 
is sijnilar to our normal (and subconscious) method of understanding 
ourselves and others. The very process of acting is the supreme develop- 
ment of our infantile predilections and adult modes of behavior. As 

Bentley says, "if life is action, it should not seem so surprising that 

acting- -going tnrough our actions again and again- -is a universal art.'" 

The playwright writes for actors, so that acting is not only the basic 

theatre art, but is also, in one sense, the end of playwriting, 

Acting may overpower playwriting, a fact which does not please 

Bentley, we have seen, but of which he is aware. A great actor may 

transform a mediocre play into art; this cannot, however, be easily 

documented because what the actor transforms it into, "a piece of 

theatrical art," is a "non docum.ent," Because the histor)' of acting 

lacks documentation, acting's historical nature is difficult to specify, 

but what we do know of it supports arguments that acting is an important 

art even apart from great play^^/riting . Bentley notes that the quality 

of acting is what keeps the theatre alive in periods where there are 

no great pla>'WTights , especially in revivals of plays that are great. 

Hence there has arisen the tradition of serious actors proving their 

mettle in the plays of Shakespeare."^" This fact helps establish acting 

as an art in its own right. 

The actor is linked to the play by the role which, as Bentley 

describes it, cries out for embodiment: "The case for professional 

acting, and the best professional acting at that, is that the great 


dramatic roles have in general been \\T:-itten for it and cannot fully 
exist without it." Bentley's distinction between character and role 
is still more conclusive evidence that the drama and the actor are 
intertwined. "Character" is a general term meaning any devised person 
in any medium, while a role is a highly compressed form of character 
designed for perf onnance . The role must then be compact, actable, 
visible in a few scenes, with very clear characteristics. The creation 
of a role is somewhat more difficult than the creation of a character, 
but the creation of a good role which is also a good character is more 
difficult still. "To create dramatis personae which are great both as 

roles and characters is to be, in this department at least, a great 


It is difficult to deny the importance of acting in the theatre; 

it is also difficult to describe the process of acting. The actor must 

perform a role, but he must also bring life to the role and to the 

theatre. It is difficult to say how this is done, not in the least 

because there is no accepted vocabulary to describe acting, or at least 

no common definition of words like "representational" and "presentational" 

(used to describe t-i\'o styles of acting) . This is a factor contributing 

to Bentley's sense of "mortification" over how little he has i\Titten 

about the acting he has seen. He has, in fact, v.Titten much less 

about acting than about drama, but he offers sufficient commentary to 
suggest that he sees an important tension in acting between the inner- 
psychological theory of Stanislavski and the cooler, more reserved and 
detached approach of Brecht. Generally, he wants some qualities of both. 


l\'hile favoring both psychological imitation and Brechtian distance, 
Bentley must put some stress on the latter. This follows his general 
analysis of the predominance of imitation and naturalism in 1950 's 
American acting, from which he concludes that, of the traditional poles 
of acting, "natural" and "artificial," Merican actors are neglecting 
the "art." These terms, he says, have little meaning out of context 
because "dramatic art, like all other art, necessarily involves both 
imitation and selection, nature and artifice, truth and beauty. We 
critics want the right balance, so we put our weight on the side con- 
temporary theatre is neglecting." Honesty in character portrayal is 
desirable, but so is a sense of style and technique. He feels that 
contemporary acting has gone too far in the direction of the natural: 
"Betterton and Garrick were congratulated on their naturalness, but 
just compare their portraits with performances by actors of our current 

nose-picking school.' To say that their naturalness had its limits is 

only to reiterate tliat they were actors." 

Bentley maintains a positive view of Stanislavski ' s internal 

approach in part because of its insights into language. Bentley reveres. 

the language-oriented actor as a result of his drama-oriented aesthetic: 

"The actor who can extract everything from every phrase and verbal 

nuance is the best actor, even if he can do nothing else." But he is 

not interested in language as elocution, and he therefore emphasizes 

Stanislavski 's search for the inner motivations behind language because 

language is only the out^vard expression of deeper and more complex 

"responses to stijnuli, like gestures." This makes the evocation of the 

reality of language very important and qualifies the work of the actor. 


at least in rehearsal: to find the inner, psychological sources of speaking 
so that the audience may see words "springing from a situation, from 
a character, from a query, a blow, or a snort." 

But it is not enough for the actor to imitate the manner of 
life, for he is the expressive medium of the theatre, in the position 
of extending the design of another artist, but filling it with his 
o\\n expressive sense of life. Like art itself, the actor must be vivid, 
must perform with an unusual intensity: "To 'live' on stage means to 
do more than live off stage, it means to give off life, to make it 
audible and visible, to make of it a projectile. ..." And for 
Bentley, the expressive nature of the art seems to precede its imitative 
nature in acting: "l\hat acting testifies to in dramatic art is not 

in the first place its imitative character but its exaggerative charac- 

^ ,,33 

We have seen that in art Bentley sees expression as being tied 

in with the nature of beauty, and so he defines the work of the actor 

in active and expressive terms that include both body and personality: 

"The actor is closer to the acrobat than to the artist's model, since 

he exhibits his body largely for what it can do. And what an actor's 

body can do is expressive rather than lovely, and may be expressive, 

indeed, in the least lovely mode, such as grotesque comedy." It is 

this expressive character he has in mind when he describes Bert Lahr's 

performance in a typical piece of Broadway comedy: "The result [of 

Lahr's performance] is that the even surface of routine entertainment is 

broken by eruptions of sheer art. . . . Lahr's performance has about it 

a very embarassing quality- -beauty . . . his personality . . , expresses 

a criticism of life. ..." 


Bentley inplies that the exaggerative and expressive nature of 
acting is possible both with the Stanislavskian approach (as it was 
interpreted in America), through a kind of hyper -natural ism, and with 
the Brechtian concept of detachment from, character, Bentley is less 
responsive to the Stanislavskian manner, that of the Actors' Studio, 
because of its tendency to merely copy life and because of the limita- 
tions of its emotional method. At its most naturalistic and self- 
indulgent, Bentley disparages the i\rork of the Actors' Studio as "nose- 
picking" and overinvolved with neurasthenics, It is clear to him, 
however, that this style of acting, perhaps because of an intensified 
focus on the self, an exaggeration of the psychological, is exactly 
what enlivens the most prominent American dramas of the period, those 
of Williams, Miller and other emotional realists. 

Tlie Actors' Studio style is developed, Bentley notes, from 
much concentration "not on technique itself, but on a kind of truth- 
fulness of feeling through which, it is hoped, the action on stage will 
come to life." To a certain extent this is good, he says, because the 
stage requires a sense of "life" and action before it requires "fine 
elocution or eloquent style.'" This method is limited, however, by its 
excessive focus on a single kind of dramatic movement -'"movement of the 
nerves. ""^ Vvliere the play's action depends on an intense depiction of 
"neurosis" rather than the moral-ethical conflicts which Bentley prefers, 
this kind of acting works well. It is, however, a considerably less 
fruitful approach to classical and much of the European drama, The 
limitations of this approach lead Bentley to desire a less inner -psy- 
chological kind of acting. 


He finds this in the Brechtian approach, which he sees as 

prevalent in much good European acting and "close to the practice of 

our leading comedians."" He describes the approach as broad rather 

than limited, complex rather one-sided, and intellectual as well as 


The best kind of acting is always that which seems snnple but 

is complex in its effects, which gives an impression of simplicity 

but which is actually subtle and many-sided in its workings. , . , 

Acting may be called fresh, vital, and modern when it leaves behind 

what may be called the Ibsen-Chekhov-Stanislavski period, during 

which actors learned to embody a mood and sustain it during the whole 

evening, and attempts at a freer, cooler manner in which a" wider 

range of quickly changing moods is achievable; in which a story 

or a man's character is not defined by a single atmosphere, above all 

not by an em.otion that carries all before it, forbidding other 

emotions and all intellect to exist. 38 

This approach offers variety and --important to Bentley- -intellect on 

the stage. It is close to Brecht's descriptions of cool, "alienated" 

acting. Bentley gives a specific example of Brecht's theory in practice 

when he describes how an Italian comedian acts "stiffness" while his 

"out stretched hand is not stiff. It is in a position of stiffness, 

but it is relaxed." Since Bentley sees Brecht's dramatic mode as 

that of a particularly satirical and bitter comedy^ it is fitting that 

the practices of comic acting would have influenced his acting theory. 

If Bentley seems to prefer cool, Brechtian acting over emotional, 

Stanislavskian acting, it is because of his desire to emphasize "art" 

in acting and because he does not, in effect, see Brechtian acting as 

excluding imitation and realism but as combining them with a broader 

expressiveness, uniting elements of both realism and non-realism. 


To those who accuse Brecht of denying basic principles o£ Western art, 

imitation and realism, Bentley retorts that this is not so: 

They [the detractors of Brecht] are right, I think, when they 
observe that illusion is inlierent in the art of acting and thus 
in all theatre. They are wrong only if they assume that the 
Narrative Realist eleminates illusion altogether. Illusion is 
a matter of degree, and a lesser degree of it is not necessarily 
less dramatic than a higher degree of it. 40 

For Bentley, the best acting, like the best drama, mediates 

extremes or maintains a tension beti^reen extremes: "His [Lee J. Cobb's ] 

performance has a double action: it draws you in and it holds you away. 

In the jargon of theatre aesthetics, there is empathy and there is 

alienation . I submit that this is the paradox-.or better the dialec- 

+ ■ r JT- .41 

tic--ot tirst rate acting," Acting is both imitative and expressive, 
emotional and intellectual, and the best American actors demonstrate 
this by "not wallowing in sordid details, or merely reproducing the 
facts of life, but [by] seizing the essence of those facts, and having 

seized it, not fearing large, expansive emotion but letting it com.e 

out when it must," 

The detachment that goes with art is important to the actor in 
his development. I have said that the actor is the expressive material 
of the theatre, and that the actor's self becomes a part of the material 
of his art. Because of this, it is probable that at least a part of 
Bentley 's distrust of the direction of the very naturalistic Actors' 
Studio method acting and its aitphasis on inner feeling is that it is 
excessively internal. It depends overmuch on the actor's own neuroses 
which are too directly a part of his ovm personality, too close to be 
distanced as art. In addition, the focus on self limits the actor from 
achieving the technique and versatility needed for stage acting. ^"^ 


Dealing with the personality as part o£ the artistic material 
is different from simply exhibiting the personality. In the former 
case there is activity, in the latter passivity (like the artist's model). 
Bentley describes tivo types of "personality" in acting, one of them 
intimately related to real personality, the other distanced from it, 
as though aware of its function as medium. He describes the process 
whereby the personality is transformed from the real to the aesthetic 
in this way: 

For once an actor has his technique (i.e., is an actor), 
his individuality shows itself. He has shed everything that 
passed for his personality in the days when personality meant the 
part of him that was accessible to his conscious mind and to 
the minds of fans and publicity men. He now has his personality 
as an artist. The one persona is an obstacle, the other an 
instrument. 44 

Another way of looking at it is to say that the actor must pass through 
the outer layers of personality in order to reach something deeper, 
more essential, and more useful for artistic purposes. Bentley finds 
an example of the aesthetic "supreme personality" in Martha Graham 
(who, we note, as a dancer is freed from dealing with the complexities 
of linguistic personality) : "Graham is not an ingratiatin-, person 
v.'ithout art but an austere, unprepossessing, forbidding person trans- 
figured by art." 

As with play\\Titing, then, the hack actor is doomed to live with 
neurosis while the artist transfigures it into art. The hack actor must 
substitute various levels of personality for technique and aesthetic 
substance. Some may substitute their name or fame for acting, Bentley 
places Judith Anderson in this category: "Her personality is not some- 
thing defined by her acting. Rather we are invited to admire her acting 
because she is a personality. ..." That is, one does not focus on 


the artistic, but on some other quality, like glamor. It is siip.ilar 
to the recent condition of looking at a Rembrandt and being able to see 
only the six million dollar price tag. Another substitution for art 
involves the perfomer in establishing "an indirectly erotic relation 
with the audience," allowing or requesting the audience to love him 
because he is so beautiful or wonderful or ingratiating. Tliis sub- 
stitutes another level of personality- -a desire to be loved- -for the 
truth of acting a role. Only by becoming a medium for the art does 
the actor achieve both identification with the role and the distance 
from his oivn personal attitudes necessary for art. 

If the actor creates an illusion of reality distanced by awareness 
of the art (as Langer says, "it is part of the artist's business to 

r 48 

make his work elicit this [distanced] attitude"), then this is 
repeating that acting is an art. In order to fulfill the conditions 
of art, the audience must be aware that the actor is expressively 
portraying human personality within a complex expressive and artistic 
structure. In this situation, the actor's ability to achieve a believable 
portrayal ("believable" being a metaphor), to subm.erge his personality 
into the dramatic role, is itself a distancing device: we admire this 
capacity. Tlie actor, says Bentley, "is not exhibiting the role alone, 
he is exhibiting his prowess, he is exhibiting himself," Not the self 
of the personality, but the self of the artist, the technique or virtu- 

Bentley suggests a psychology of acting in lAich there is focus 
inward on the self as well as outward on others. He says that Olivier 
could not portray Justice Shallow "if there were not a Justice Shallow 


in Olivier, if Shallow were not something he might yet become, or might 
have become. In such roles, the actor is exhibiting the many different 
possibilities of being that he finds in hijnself."^^ That is, the actor's 
search for truth is not the imposition of form on the material of person- 
ality or self, but the exploration of many possibilities of character 
within the self, the recognition of an identification with some other. 

The inner search is the psychological base of acting, but it must 
be supported by technique and knowledge of the needs of the drama, 
for the actor must ser^'-e the drama. This means presenting the play 
to the audience in a xvell-formed manner, Technique is necessary for the 
actor, for it supports all understanding of the "tone and rhythm" of 
a work and the communication of that tone and rhythm to others by means 
of voice, body, and movement. Technique will show the best way to play 
a scene; it will allow discovery and expression to take proper form. 
If the naturalistic portrayal of emotion should become so violent as 
to cause language to be garbled, for example, Bentley suggests a techriique 
for playing both emotion aiid language. It is an example of true 
theatricality in drama as opposed to inchoate blather and uncontrolled 
emotionalism. Given a scene where great emotion m.ust be played, along 
with an important speech, Bentley suggests that "v/hatever men really do 
at such a moment, a stage character might assume a strange and improbable 
calm. Then we can listen to him. A skillful actor can always suggest 
that there are all kinds of things behind such a calm." 

Great acting does not "come alive" on the basis of technique: 
it is the technique which supports the discoveries of the artist/actor. 
In his discussion of acting, Bentley comes close to belying the emphasis 


on mind and intellect found in his discussion of drama. Although he is 

aware that an actor may ivork up a performance by thinking it out well, 

he is also aware that the grasp an actor can have on character and role 

may have little to do with conscious mental activity: 'TOiether by 

painstaking calculation or lightening intuition, she has worked out a 

series of stances and movements, of accents and intonations, which are 

right for this character in this play."^ The intuitive leaps of 

creative imagination, little explored in Bentley's writing, come to the 

fore in his view of acting perhaps because the art of acting has such 

a deep psychology and cannot easily be interpreted on the basis of 

rational intellect. Bentley is aware that in acting an intellectual 

understanding of the script may not be necessary, and he quotes a story 

about Bernhardt to this effect: 

A friend of mine . . . was present at some of the rehearsals of 
Hamlet and he told me tliat once or twice Sarah Bernhardt con- 
sulted" him as to the meaning of a passage. He said what he 
thought, and she ans\\fered in a way which showed she had completely 
misunderstood him and had perhaps not even listened. The process 
was repeated two or three times running, the misunderstanding 
growing deeper and wider. Then, he said, she went on to the stage 
and played the passage in question not only as if she had under- 
stood the words he had explained, but as if she had had access to 
the inner secrets of the poet's mind. 53 

The mysterious and difficult which Bentley admires in art come, perhaps, 
from the artist's abilit)^ to grasp intuitively, which ability is con- 
clusively demonstrated in this passage and the work of great actors 


Interpretation and the Director 
Bentley remains a traditionalist where the function of the 
director is concerned: "Traditionally, the style has been set by the 
poet, not the stage designer, nor the director, nor even the actor, all 
of ivhom have to adapt themselves to the style of the l^Titing."^'^ He 
speaks of the director as an "interpreter" who takes a coherent piece 

of art, the play, and "works to see that unity is faithfully reproduced" 

m theatrical terms. Interpretation does not mean that the director's 

task is the simple and somewhat passive setting of actors into roles, 
for the play has a co^nplex foim which must be understood and theatrically 
shaped. Nor does it mean that a director must be slavishly devoted to 
everything the plavnvTight has xvTitten, especially if the play has faults. 
And again, interpretation cannot mean that the director injects into a 
play his own very personal interpretation, for all conceptualization 
about the play must take the playwright's words as primary. Interpreta- 
tion is the careful and intricate discover)^ of the form and meaning 
of a play and the realization of a theatrical presence for what is dis- 
covered. The job of the director is to ensure the living presence of 
the work of the play\\Tight. 

Bentley is aware of the great importance of the director in the 
modern theatre, as well he might be considering his analysis of the 
fragmentation of modern societ>- a director is necessary to help 
mediate diverse plays for diverse audiences. Yet he is wary of the 
development of the director into a Craigian super-artist, the major 
theatre artist, as though this were "a giant step in the march of 
progress," as though, in fact, the theatre were progressing or 


evolving "even though it is obvious that the history of the other arts 

is not."'' As we have seen, he views with disdain the rampant theatrical - 

ism which was the legacy o£ Appia and Craig and the nineteenth centur>' 

enthusiasm for the director. The substitution of design and direction 

for language and acting constituted an aesthetic re-definition in the 

theatre which Bentley hopes to counter. The work of directors such as 

Reinhardt and Meyerhold is, for Bentley, the prime example of this 

detached (from the play and from reality) theatricalism. 

There is another, more technical and less violent in impact 

on the play, shift in modern theatre's use of the director. That is the 

continual addition to a play of the qualities of the director, as 

though no play could exist without directorial help, Bentley describes 

this as occasionally useful: 

Until recently it seems to have been assumed that a director 
would merely re-inforce an author's effects, accenting what was 
already accented, to A adding more A. Our more sophisticated 
theatre prefers to give a play "the treatment"- -adding to 
quality A a directorial temperament or idea of quality B. If a 
script A is deficient, and B is precisely what is needed to 
make good the defjciency, the partnership of author and director 
is a triumph. 57 

The difference betiven a Meyerhold and a Joshua Logan is that the former 
uses the play as a starting point for his own artistic vision and creates 
something quite different from the drama. The latter makes judgments 
about the play and does vhat is necessar}' to improve the production. 
Bentley tends to approve of this second kind of work, in that its focus 
is on the betterment of the drama. He approves especially when he is 
working as a director with material he considers problematic: 


Both critic and director are aware of faults, but whereas it is 
the critic's job to point them out, it is the director's job 
to cover thein up, if only by bringing out a play's merits. It 
is not true that a director accepts a play v/ith its faults on 
its head, that he must follow up the play^^Tight even into what he 
believes to be error. He cannot be a self-respecting interpreter 
without following his o'kti taste and judgment. 58 

IVhen this kind of direction begins to take over a play, however, 
it begins to take on the function of playivrriting , as in the case of 
Elia Kazan. Bentley considers Kazan to be the quintessence of the 
modem director, vitally in tune with his environment, "the incarnate 
spirit of the age; I i^uld call him a human seismograph if there were a 
seismograph which would not only record tremors but transmit them."^" 
l^Tien Bentley wrote that he'd heard that Kazan was "virtually co-author 
of A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman even to the extent 
of changing the character of the leading persons," Kazan wrote back 
that he had not written one line of either play, Bentley responded: 
"It seems to me that if a director helps to create the very idea of a 
character- -changing it from what it was in the author's original script-- 
he is CO -author --even though the creating and changing has been done 
without recourse -^o new dialogue." This is the extent to which 
Bentley defines playwriting; it is a reasonable extent. 

Since Kazan is not a theatrical ist or a formalist in that he 
focuses on cliaracter and action in the drama, and since the result of 
his work in production is to create good drama and good theatre, Bentley 
generally approves of this collaborative work, He can also project 
the qualities of a good director like Kazan into a play where he finds 
them lacking, for exampl , The Crucible : "Mr. Kazan would have taken 
this script up like clay and remolded it. He would have struck fire 


from the individual actor, and he would have brought one actor into 

much livlier relationship with another." ^ Bentley's lionization of 

Kazan- -to the extent that in the New Republic reviews Kazan emerges 

as the most exciting phenomenon on Broadway- -seem.s in part possible 

because Bentley first encountered the Kazan-directed plays in the form 

he gave them; they did not exist as masterpieces where directorial 

tampering is also common and, according to Bentley, less often fruitful. 

Bentley says that the classics, like Shakespeare, need special 

care and "interpretation" to make them speak to a modem audience, and 

he suggests two methods to "revive" a play, only one of which pertains 

to the director: 

Let us not underesti^iate the difficulty of revivals. To exhum.e a 
\vork is not to revive it, however prettily you dress up the 
skeleton; to breathe life into it you m.ust either recapture the 
spirit of the original or by new insight create new life. A 
revival should be either a return to the essentials of the 
original or new departure on the wings of a new inspiration. 63 

Bentley prefers the first m.ethod, that of the director. The second 

method-- Br echt and Weil's Threepenny Opera is an example- -requires 

the skill of great play\^Titing. Productions that impose a "concept" 

on Shakespeare often do the plays an injustice. l\'hat is necessar)^ in 

the first case is a search for the real values in the Shakespearean 

script and their emphasis on the stage. The director cannot "let 

Shakespeare speak for himself" for a num.ber of reasons, the most 

important being that a Shakespearean play, like any other dram.a, 

is a vision of life and has a meaning. The proper presentation of 

this meaning is the interpretive work of the director. The director, 

like any artist, works from the core of the meaning -stiiicture to form 


the production. This Ts-ork cannot be merely "technical" because that 
leads to under or over interpretation: either he does little more 
than add clear speech or he adds so many obvious touches to "doll up" 
the production that "too crass a separation is made betv.'een technique 
and content." 

The process o£ interpretation is one of articulation and 
clarification, the transmission of the play to the audience. The 
work of the director is on the form of the play, and when he does not 
highlight and give distinction to this form, then "nothing is pre- 
pared, nothing held back for suspense, nothing articulated, nothing 
underscored. In a word, nothing is interpreted."^^ In Shakespeare, 
as in other plays, the essential work of the director is to assure the 
successful progress of the story (hence the importance of plot and 
structure) by making the parts clear and textured. Each image in a 
play must be made interesting both in itself and in relation to the 
flow of the whole. 

Shakespeare's works demand special attention because so much 
of the meaning -stiTicture is submerged in poetic language and may be 
lost to us both culturally and linguistically. The director is free 
to cut from the plays, but only to the extent that the play retains 
its coherence, for masterpieces are "organic and integrated structures" 
and will only withstand a limited amount of tampering. Bentley suggests 
that Shakespeare should remain unproduced if the director cannot find 
within the play under consideration something meaningful to the modem 
audience- -and he stresses that the meaning must come from the play and 
not be something imposed on it. Imposed interpretations generally 


yield inferior drama, such as Orson Welles' anti-Fascist Julius Caesar, 
in which a strained allusion to modern events destroyed the meaning 
o£ Shakespeare's conflict: "Since Fascists are bad, and anti-Fascists 
good ex officia , it cannot be so very interesting to get to IcQow 
either party: all we have is a crude melodrama made pretentious by 
forced allusions to current events. "^^ 

Interpretation is the presentation of the play in theatrical 
form; it is not the explanation of one idea in the play or even one 
idea about the play. Focus must be on those qualities which the play- 
wight intended the play to have as they emerge from the words of the 
play. Bentley feels that to focus on the action and the characters 
of the play is the method of discovering the meaning. In reviving 
Shakespeare, the director should return to the realism of the characters 
and relationships as they lead to the action, for this is the center 
of the drama. By returning to this center, Bentley believes that a 
director can avoid the limited view of Shakespeare which is almost 
certainly the outcome of directing an imposed idea or a single "concept" 
of the plays. Though Brecht's collaborations with Shakespeare are valid 
in theory as playivTiting, there are few directors ;Ao qualify, as does 
Brecht, to deal with the Bard in this manner. But that is no matter, 
says Bentley, for good direction is all that is necessary-: "I maintain 
that the bulk of Shakespeare remains viable unchanged if the respons- 


ibilities of interpretation are not shirked.' 

The director should not feel slighted in the artistic process if 
he does not impose his views onto a script, for interpretation is not 
a mechanical process of fleshing out the desires of the play'v.Tight. 


Since the director is primarily responsible for giving form to an 
image, a specific piece of theatrical art, his job will have a strong 
imaginative side and will depend on the kind of exploration and dis- 
covery that marks the creative process in both playv;right and actor. 
The director's guides are his craft or technique and his ' 'theatre - 
poet's intuition" which helps him to follow through on the artistic 
process of the play\\Tight. 

Bentley suggests that the director is not merely a craftsman, 
working toward a perfectly conceived finished product, and he is axArare 
of the crucial creative period of the rehearsal. Bentley, along with 
most modem theatre practitioners and theorists^ sees the rehearsal 
period as the most necessary element of play production, a time to 
search for and discover the specifics of form/content in the play by 
theatrical testing, something which cannot be completely thought out 
beforehand. In this process, the director is partly a guide, partly 
a CO -creator with the actor, adding the final and necessary stamp of 
unity and coherence on the production. Bentley describes the creative 
aspect of rehearsal: 

He [Welles] had done his homework, and come to rehearsal with 
a clear outline. At the same time he had not made the mistake 
of filling in the outline with a c-ntent imagined at home in 
isolation both from the particular actors concerned and from 
the creative state established in rehear-sals whenever the 
morale is good. The director who does his \vork at home is 
a sculptor modeling with hard clay. It takes rehearsal- -and 
rehearsal with the proper psychological adjustment- -to soften 
the clay and present him with a really malleable medium. And 
the creativity of rehearsals consists in the way in which one 
thing leads to another. The director receives his "inspirations" 
out of the things that happen there. His spur is the spur 
of the m.oment. A fine production comes into being as a chain reac- 
tion starting with the first rehearsal. 69 

This is a description of the director working as artist. Though 

he follows the design of the pla>i\Tight, there is immense variability 


in the theatrical image- -one might say it is infinitely variable --when 
a series of speeches are given human presence in a theatre. The direc- 
tor need not impose a concept on the play to become an artist, for 
he is an artist by "merely" interpreting the playwright. He is an 
artist who works in the medium of actors, space, and time, gradually 
developing a formed image. He does not make form of chaos, for he 
already has formed matter, but he must find much within that matter: 
attitudes, sequences, movement patterns, and emotional levels that 
correspond to the motives and actions of the characters. He must make 
the words of the play come alive in theatrical terms. 

Bentley, as we have noted, does not like the obtrusive flour- 
ishes of pure teclmique which are "those pieces of ingenious interpreta- 
tion ;\'hich call special and gratuitous attention to the director. . . . " 
As with the play itself, form and content should be wedded; the director, 
when he has done his work well, will not appear in the play in inter- 
pretive frills, unusual concepts, or pseudo-intellectual attempts to 

explain the play. The m.eaning of the play is in the play and not in 

what the director has added to it, 

Bentley' s concern for intellect and ideas is a concern for the 

play, and he stresses the difficulty of real ideas as opposed to a 

kind of cleverness he calls "Bright Ideas," "A Bright Idea is an 

invalid idea wiiich has more appeal to the sem.i- literate mdnd than a valid 

one; a phenomenon of some importance in a culture xvhose diagnostic is 

semi-literacy." Bright Ideas, being common in our culture, also 

intrude upon our dram.a, either injected into the play by the playwright 

or imposed on the play in the form of clever "concepts" by directors 


who haven't thought out their ^cirk or who are not very smart. Changing 

Chekhov's Russia to the U. S. South may have some point in tr>dng to 

make a Chekhov play more accessible to an audience, 

the idea being that domestic affairs are more real to an audience 
than foreign affairs. It may be a true idea; all that's ^vTong 
is that it doesn't apply to matter in hand. In context it is" 
only a Bright Idea, 73 

Excessive interpretation is problematic in that it becomes a 

substitute for the play, an example of theatrical form taking precedence 

over dramatic content, of pleasing surface over substance, an example 

of negative theatricalism. l\Tien strong, stylistic direction, like that 

of Tyrone Gutherie, is very good, then it becomes more important than 

the play. Any play can be made exciting and vigorous by a director 

like Gutherie. But the best director's very iinportant interpretive 
v/ork ranains in the core of the drama and out of sight. Kis work on 
form follows Bentley's concept of ideal form by receding to the back- 
ground while the content, the play and its content, are featured. 

Scene Design and Lighting 
In a sense, that Bentley addresses it so seldom and, when he 
does, rails so against its excesses, one might say that the theatrical 
milieu as represented by settings and lights is the least important 
element of theatre production in his thepry. In another sense, however, 
the absolute necessity of its unity with the play's production makes 
this milieu both central and crucial and demands that its role be prop- 
erly played. That role, of course, is the presentation of the core of 
the drama which is why scenery and lights must, like all other theatrical 


elements, follow the design of the play. As closely related to the drama, 
scenery and lights are best when they take the form of drama which 
Bentley prefers, an expressive realism which avoids the extremes of 
naturalism and anti -real ism. In accordance with his general aesthetic, 
neither scenery nor lights should call attention to themselves, nor 
should they be sunk in a decorative or decadent style, but should evoke 
the life and reality of the drama. 

It is with scenery and lighting that the full impact of Brecht's 
influence on Bentley is clearly visible. It is the one place ivhere the 
practice of Brecht's Narrative Realism stands forth as a coherent 
theory of the stage by itself, without combination with another theory, 
though as a method which "stands midway between the two extreme methods 
of the modem theatre, which we may call naturalism and symbolism." 
Naturalism,, as we know, interests Bentley little because of its slavish 
devotion to external detail. The dangers of stage symbolism (in 
settings) lie in its capacity for "artiness and cuteness," for calling 
too much attention to the non-realistic devices themselves, like the 

pantomimed doors and chairs for cars and trains in the plays of T. 

Wilder. (Wilder, stripped of his wistful expressionism, is senti- 
mentality pure and simple.) The anti-illusionism practiced by Brecht, 
however, is theatricalist while allowing reality to be penetrated and 
exposed: the essences depicted are distanced by art without loss of the 
realism and "imitation" which are basic principles of Western drama. 
The theatre is exposed as a theatre, the lights are exposed as lights, 
and the scenery is exhibited as scenery; but it is all designed to 
represent an action from life. 


Bentley's basic aesthetic demands a connection with life, 
a realism based on the everyday world (rather than on sone ''higher'' 
reality) , but it is compounded with an expressive sense of beauty. 
His aesthetic admits the balance and nleasing unification of desipn 
but it also calls for a disjunctiA^e and forceful quality much like that 
achieved in the Brechtian settings of the Berliner Ensemble. It is a 
controlled and forceful sense of design, angular and distinct, more 
line than color, more solid than airy. It is the outcome of his prefer- 
ence for the clear and the concrete over the vague and insubstantial. 
It is more masculine than feminine. 

Bentley's harshest commentary on stage design is saved for the 
unreal when it takes the form of a belabored and surface style which 
is Baroque, lavish, and "gorgeous," It is a style which he finds in 
1950 's productions of Shakespeare in Britain going hand-in-hand with a 
gentility i^iich has nothing to do with Shakespeare. An all-encompassing 
gentility and gorgeousness can only touch the surface of Shakespeare's 
plays, and thus a lushly done up Turkish-style production of Twelfth 
^'ight does nothing more than obscure the substance of the drama. "^^ 

The gorgeous style is no more correct when it proceeds from the 
style of the play, for it is always too "aesthetic" and too self- 
conscious. ,He finds the pretentious theatricality of Cecil Beaton's 
set for The Grass Harp to be "ridiculous," an example of style gone soft: 
"elegant, dandified, and, it must be said, effeminate."^^ If the purpose 
of Capote's play is to reach a Higher Reality, he cannot understand how 
this Reality is to be demonstrated by billowing silk, pleasing colors, 
and delicate figures which are the correspondents of pretentious prose 
and trite thematics. It is only natural that there would also be limits 
to the opposite of the gorgeous: the spare, dark style which, Bentley 


suggests, may come from the social theatre's distaste for the "esthetic'' 
(an attitude generally shared by Bentley himself) , ''If one complains 
of some designers that they are painters who do not know stagecraft or 
the drama, one might make the opposite complaint of Mr. Gorelik. . . , ""^^ 
A knowledge of drama and stagecraft are, in fact, primarv^ qualities 
for the designer. In his own way, the designer must be an artist in 
the theatre, searching for the expressive form for the ambience of the 
play. It is not literal depiction of scene, but evocative portrayal 
the designer is about. It is not decoration and the qualities of 
painting that the designer must deal with, but the elaboration of space, 
an element of the medium of the theatrical work of art. Bentley, re- 
gardless of his protest against Appia, is not uirmune to Appian concepts 
as they flowered in America with Jones, Simonson, Meilziner, and Aronson, 
He finds a pinnacle of American design in Boris Aronson, whose "joyous 

wit and controlled fantasy provide a desperately needed alternative 

to , , . excessive, oversophisticated gorgeousness. , . . " For 

Bentley, Aronson is able to mix the concrete and the symbolic in a 

manner worthy of the true theatre artist, capturing the clarity 

and grappling with the mystery that is inherent in the greatest art. 

Bentley is impressed by Aronson 's interpretation of The Master Builder 

in visual, stage terms: 

Boris Aronson 's set is lofty in conception and clever in execution. 
American stage design is usually competent and often brilliant, 
but Aronson (alone?) is an explorer- -an explorer of the stage 
as a m.edium and of the play as a mystery to be guessed. ... he 
contrives to have the best of both the worlds, the abstract and 
the representational, the symbolic and the actual, very much 
like the Norwegian master himself. 80 


IVhile Bentley is certain that the scenery's texture, its form 

and style as representation of the content/design of the drama, must 

be fused with its function as a space in which actors play, he is 

more willing to set lighting apart as a primarily functional element 

o£ the theatrical design, subverting all form to this function. The 

Appian use of lighting to create both texture and m.eaning in the 

theatrical milieu takes, in Bentley, secondary position to the audience's 

need to see the actor, not just well, but very well: 

We have to learn to use lights for the central purposes of the 
theatre. This means neither limiting them to the simulation of 
natural appearances nor letting them run wild in an orgy of 
independence nor sv.dtching them off because one loves darkness. 
The center of dramatic performance is the actor, and the center 
of the actor is the actor's eyes. We need to see them, It may 
even be . . . that the actor needs to see our eyes too, 81 

The need to see the actors' eyes necessitates much light. It is a 

completely Brechtian concept of lighting; it sees the purpose of 

lighting the play as illuminating, in a very direct way, the drama. 

Brecht wanted, simply, a "revealing flood of white light covering the 

whole stage." 

Bentley criticizes all lighting which is dim, atmospheric, uneven, 

constantly changing, and which calls attention to itself, That is, 

he condemns both naturalistic lighting which seeks to achieve dark 

nights, dim afternoons, and dusky comers and s)Tnbolic lighting xvhich 

strives to create effects by lighting changes, varying levels, and color, 

Tlie desire to see the actor, to see his eyes, is the functional reason 

for this. The anti -theatrical reason is similar and clear from above: 

too much lighting creates its o\\i\ theatrical effect, apart from the 

drama. It is on the lighting that Bentley's anti-theatricalism has 


its strongest effect, even though there is a certain, limited 
theatricalise in the Brechtian flood of light. IVhile scenery is 
allowed to enhance and follow the expressive function of the drama, 
lighting is designed mainly to make it sharply visible. It is Brecht's 
sense of illumination, not Appia's. 

More than any other part of his theory, Bentley's view of scene 
design and lighting seems borrowed rather than pondered and developed. 
His appreciation for American scene design seems to flow freely from 
the fact that the non-realism of European theatre made significant 
inroads into .American design while the drama in America remained 
resolutely and even dully (as Bentley himself notes) realistic. 
Nowhere else did tlie Appian flavor touch our theatre so directly, 
especially not in acting, which has a tendency toward the naturalism 
of the Actors' Studio. So it is with the designers like Aronson that he 
senses a great fusion of abstract and real. That Bentley will not 
recognize the deep affective shadings offered by mood in lighting 
seems almost willful. Or perhaps he knows this and attacks it only 
at an excessive point. Certainly the exposure lighting preached by 
Brecht is not appropriate for ever>' play, but Bentley is less concerned, 
at this point, with an aesthetic of lighting. His view is based purely 
on function. 



1. Bentley, What, pp. 175-6. 

2. Bentley, Search , p, 163. 

3. Bentley, Thinker, p. 188. 

4. Richard Schechner, "Approaches," in Public Donain , p, 63. 

5. Bentley seldom finds this to be the case, as in his comments 
on Grotowski's TTie Constant Prince: "The inner meaning of a three-act 
masterpiece cannot be translated into any one-act dance drama, Its 
meaning is tied indissolubly to its three-act structure." War, p. 383. 

6. Bentley, Thinker , p, 50, 

7. Bentley, Search , p. 14. 

8. Charles Morgan, "The Nature of Dramatic Illusion," in 
Suzanne K. Langer, ed, , Reflections on Art (London: Oxford University 
Press, 1968), p. 92. 

9. Bentley, Thinker , p. 194. 

10. Ibid ., p. 74. 

11. Ibid . , p, 174. Note, however, the importance of "superficial," 

12. Bentley, Search , p, 51. 

13. Bentley, Tli inker , pp, 193-4, 

14. Bentley, Search , p. 49, 

15. Bentley, Thinker, p. 194, 

16. Bentley, Event , pp. 176-7. 

17. Bentley, What, p. 67, 

18. Morgan, "Drapiatic Illusion," p. 98, 

19. Suzanjie K. Langer, Feeling and Form (New York: Charles 
Scribner's Sons, 1953), p. 325, 

20. "Historically, of course, performance was not something added: 
it was that from which dramatic art grew." Bentley, Life, p. 149. 

21. Bentley, Commitnent , p, 172. 

22. Bentley, Search , p. 63. 


23. Bentley, Life , p. 182. 

24. Ibid ., p. 172. 

25. Bentley, Event, p. 46, 

26. Bentley, Search , p. 43. 

27. Bentley, Life , p. 171. 

28. Bentley, Event , p. 216. 

29. Ibid ., p. 79. 

30. Bentley, Search , p. 77. 

31. Bentley, Event , p. 84, 

32. Ibid . 

33. Bentley, Life , pp. 169-70. 

34. Ibid ., p. 153. 

35. Bentley, Search, p. 4. 

36. Bentley, Event , p, 173. 

37. Bentley, Search , p, 75, 

38. Ibid., p. 67, 

39. Ibid ., p. 75. 

40. Ibid . , p. 140. 

41. Bentley, Event: , p, 96. 

42. Bentley, What, p. 186. That is, even the Stanlslavski/Actors ' 
Studio method acconplishes a certain search for essence, 

43. However, not only is this method of acting useful for a par- 
ticular kind of 1950 's American drama, it has also proven appropriate 
for f Im. 

44. Bentley, Event , p. 81, 

45. Ibid , , p. 122. 

46. Ibid., p. 179. 

47. Ibid ., p. 214. 


48. Langer, Feeling and Form, p, 318. 

49. Bentley, Life , p, 154. 

50. Ibid. 

51. Bentley, What, p. 190, 

52. Ibid., p. 31. 

53. Ibid ., p. 163. Bentley is conclusive on this subiect in 
"Portrait of the Critic as Young Brechtian," Theatre Quarterly . VI, 
(Spring, 1976) p. 6. "Its as well they [actors J don't theorize at 
all, because their theories wouldn't be much good. They go on hunches 
and intuitions and professionally- trained habits." 

54. Bentley, Life ,p. 78. 

55. Bentley, Thinker , p. 15, 

56. Bentley, What, p. 115. 

57. Bentley, Event , p. 104. 

58. Bentley, Search , p. 222. Bentley makes these comments in 
reference to his production of O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh , 

59. Bentley, Event , p. 152. 

60. Ibid ., p. 108. 

61. Kazan's work is a revelation for Bentley but its over-power- 
ing theatrical ism leads to resentment, on Bentley 's part, for Kazan's 
increasing formalism and a certain moralism. An extrem.e discription 
of Bentley's feeling for Kazan might even be "love-hate." Consider: 
"It's no use knowing he is not a good director unless you can also see 
that he is almost a great one." Bentley, Event , p. 109. 

62. Bentley, Event , p. 93. 

63. Ibid . , p. 141. 

64. Bentley, Search, p. 110. 

65. Ibid., p. 120. 

66. Bentley, Life , p. 93. 

67. Bentley, Event , p. 36. 

68. Bentley, What, p. 161. 


69. Ibid . 

70. Bentley, Search , p. 39. 

71. In this matter, Bentley is close to the ideas of David Cole 
(The Theatrical Event ) , lAom he resembles in few other respects. Cole 
sees the play as a special world viiich must be apprehended, and should 
not be "explained" to an audience. 

72. Bentley, Event , p. 70. 

73. Ibid . 

74. Bentley comments on Gutherie in "A Director's Theatre " 
What, pp. 112-6. 

75. Bentley, Search , p. 138. 

76. Ibid ., p. 136. 

77. Bentley, Event , p. 21. 

78. Bentley, l\Tiat , p. 37, 

79. Bentley, Event , p. 182. 

80. Bentley, iMiat , p. 48. 

81. Bentley, Search , p. 143. 

82. Ibid., p. 142. 


Bentley called his second collection of New Republi c reviews 

"A Queiy in Chronicle Form," cognizant that they were more than 

fleeting journalistic mementos. He uses Lessing as his model, for 

in Lessing 's work 

each particular review is part of a larger and more permanent 
enterprise. Through the length and breadth of his reviews 
Lessing v/as stating a philosophy of the drama ... he was 
conducting a polemdc, and ... he l^'as conducting an enquiry. 
He was fighting off v^^at he firmly held to be ■uTong, and he 
was constantly asking himself what he held to be right. 2 

This philosophy has been the focus of the previous chapters; now I 

will deal with some specifics of the query as Bentley recorded them. 

The purpose of this chapter is to examine closely several 

complete examples of Bentley 's critical work to see how he applies 

his theory to matters of form and content within the context of a 

particular time and place: the New York theatre in the early and 

m.iddle 1950 's. For Bentley is a critic interested not only in plays, 

but also in the whole relationship among pla}'wrights , audiences, and 

society. In the weekly theatre review, Bentley m.ust deal concisely 

with all the factors (form, content, and their relation to life) that 

impact on the drama. Because the plays are often new, it is difficult 

for the critic to gain perspective on them., and therefore the ongoing 

nature of critical enquiry and the relationship to a shifting context 

are more acutely visible. 



Since Bentley is a critic in the .%erican theatre, concentration 
here \dll be primarily on Aiierican drama and the society which it 
mirrored in the 1950's. Emphasis will be on the drama and Bentley's 
view o£ it rather than on sociology; Bentley's analysis of society will 
filter in through his reviews, ^though he is kno\\'n as a champion of 
Europeans like Ibsen, Pirandello, and Brecht, Bentley is an astute 
observer of American drama. The pervasive style of American drama in 
the 1950's was realistic, but the realism was often a surface phenomenon, 
unlike that of the great nineteenth century realists like Ibsen. Bentley 
addresses himself to the nature of this American realism, and his New 
Republic reviews of American plays are, in effect, a consideration and 
study of the problems of realism, a task for which he was, by training 
and inclination, ivell suited, 

Three kinds of plays will be looked at through Bentley's reviews: 
1) those which he considers works of art or at least to have qualities 
of art, represented here by two plays each of Arthur Miller and Tennessee 
Williams; 2) plays which he considers works of craft and genre entertain- 
ments and which catalog the major faults of Broadway drama; 3) a European 
play, V/aiting for Godot , which has such unique qualities that its impact 
in America is noteivorthy and ■^^^ich makes a test case for Bentley's 
theory. All of these are representative of Bentley's search. and stance. 
Since he is no "rave" \\T~iter, even his discussion of plays he likes 
contains considerable notation of their problems; his method is the 
close analysis and open discussion of the play and the production, 


Miller and Williams: Two American Artists 
Although he recognizes the quality of both Arthur Miller and 
Tennessee Williams, Bentley is no propagandist for their \vork as he 
ivas, for example, witii the o\^erlooked Brecht. Both Miller and Williams 
were well -represented to the public and their reputations were estab- 
lished by the early 1950 's, an essential condition of Broadway's need 
to codify and enhance a promising writer's position for commercial pur- 
poses. Bentley deals \vith them calmly, with a discerning eye, pointing 
out deficiencies and searching for nev/ meanings, attempting to allay 
the forces of hyperbole which surround a popular American dramatist 
and tend to inflate his worth. 

Nevertheless, Bentley emphasizes the importance of a play by 
either author because their plays are engaged vdth the problem.s and 
temper of the times. The plays are not only better than most, but they 
belong "in the mainstream of our culture. Such an author has somethincr 
to say about America th^at is worth discussing." This engagement is 
one of the major qualities of an art vrork for Bentley, and though 
both authors are engaged, he sees the nature of that engagement as 
different. Bentley believes that Miller's focus is tov.'ard an exajnina- 
tion, a criticism, of the social order, while he views Williams as more 
psychologically oriented. His treatment o-P their plays follows this 

Bentley 's discussion of Arthur Miller's The C rucible and A A^iew 
F^om The Bridge relates to his broad conviction that CommLinism has a 
hidden presence on Broadway, cloaked in the vagueness of a generalized 
liberalism, and therefore protected because it is never dealt \\dth openly.' 


Although he recognizes the evils of Stalinism, his stance is less 
ant i- Communist than it is pro-honesty: events and ideas must be dis- 
cussed. He does not think that Broadi\^y intentionally harbors Communism, 
but that it generally avoids any confrontation with ideas which might 
disturb the placid waters of conventionality. 

Bentley is therefore distressed at Miller's insistence that his 
plays are not about contemporary American politics and society, 
especially when Bentley and others see them as imbued with themes of 
false accusation, confession, betrayal, and informing. Bentley thinks 
these themes have a direct relation to th& political struggles of the 
period: the House Un-.American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings and 
Elia Kazan's appearance before the committee as a friendly v/itness, 
naming names. Wien Miller ^^^:ites a play like The Crucible , which can 
most obviously be taken as an allegory of purity and innocence for 
all those who are unjustly accused, and then denies this reading, 
Bentley is suspicious that Miller either obfuscates the true nature of 
his play or that he has a perverse inability to see it, He concludes 
that ^^iller is naive about the complexities of the, issues he is, somehow, 

Bentley is basically excited about The Crucible, but he finds 
problems in the form, as well as the content, of the play. He wonders 
why many more such committed and engaged plays are not v.Titten in 
America, and his overall reaction is that the "material is magnificent 
for narrative, poetry, drama." And yet the material is not quite 
mastered in form, not completely realized in dramatic terms: 'The 


individual characters, lil'e the individual lines, lack fluidity and 
grace." Miller, he says, is burdened by having already been elevated 
to the position of a major artist, and thus strives, like O'Neill, for 
a grand style that he does not achieve. 

But these problems in forming material do not arise of themselves, 
says Bentley; they derive from the point of view behind the drama 
(the pervasive thought which is exhibited throughout the v.^ork) . Bentley 
calls this '"the mentality of the unreconstructed liberal'^ which he 
sees as wrong or at least simplistic. This is an example of Bentley 's 
desire to get to the issues through the play, of pushing aesthetic 
problems back to their source in life. Miller, he says, exemplifies 
the falacious view, conmon to .American liberalism, that one is alxvi-ays 
innocent till proven guilty, as though there xvere no reason at all 
for the HUAC hearings. Only by assuming total innocence for all 
Communists could the situation of The C rucible parallel that of Kazan's 
appearances before HUAC. In believing this, Bentley suggests that 
Miller himself is possessed of considerable "innocence" of the complexity 
of politics. 

The play does not offer an acceptable parallel to the 1952 
"witch hunt," says Bentley, because of the disparity between the "crimes" 
of witchcraft and Communism- -that one is by reasonable definition not 
a possibility, while the other may in fact involve some threat to the 
United States through policies of the Soviet Union. In this matter, 
Bentley remains non-extremist: he denies both the leftist idea that 
Communism could pose no real threat to .America and the excessively 


anti -Communist view which condems as Communist "the activities of all 
liberals as they seem to illiberal illiterates," I\'here Miller's play 
errs, he says, is in failing to distinguish among the complexities of 
the Communism issue in .America, such failure yielding only a melo- 
dramatic conflict "between the wholly guilty and the wholly innocent." 

Furthemore, Bentley notes that the real life drama involving 
Miller's former associate Elia Kazan, with whom Miller broke both 
personal and professional relations after Kazan renounced his former 
Communism and named others in his "cell," does not correspond to the 
situation of the character in the play who chooses death before admission 
of guilt. The difference is, of course, that Kazan had been a Communist 
while Giles Corey had not been a vritch. As Bentley says, the political 
reading of the play- -that Communism ^\'as no more real a threat than 
witchcraft --could only be, hield by a Communist, 

The artistic upshot of the Miller/Kazan split is the replacement 
of a "guilty" director (Kazan) ^^dth an "innocent" one (Jed Harris), 
says Bentley, and for this reason the production is not as good as it 
might have been. As Bentley sees it, Kazan is a better director and 
would have handled the relationships of the characters more adroitly 
and generally ijiproved the play in production, 

Eric Bentley is no friend of HUAC, but he is conscious of the 
complexity of the issues faced by Americans who had sho^^n allegiance 
to the Communist Party. He HTJuld prefer to see these issues discussed 
than to see them dealt with cryptically and melodramatically. One 
suspects that Bentley also finds something despicable about the naming 


of one's fonner or current friends, in front of fanatical anti-Commimists, 
but not so absolutely despicable as in The Crucible , Read as a parallel 
of the events of 1952, The Crucible breaks down in a number of instances. 
One can only conclude, -with many years perspective on the events, that 
the relationship of the play to HUAC and Kazan is essentially an emotional 
one for Miller; one also suspects that Miller, had lie isTitten about 
those events, could have done so more realistically. Still, in the 
heat of the moment, Bentley's focus on the drama/life connection is not 
unreasonable. The play is about Kazan, but not directly. 

Bentley is apparently ready to concede this point in a note to 
his review of A View From The Bridge / a play which led hin to renew 
his charges that Miller deliberately confoimds the meaning of his 
plays, emphasizing their psychological content, perhaps to disguise a 
radical point of view for the Broadway public. In that significant 
note, Bentley shifts his stance somewhat to suggest that a wTiter is 
not necessarily consciously aware of \^h&t he is really writing about, 
that Miller, regardless of his feelings about a play, may have been 
dealing with material more personal, potent, and psychologically buried 
than he knew, 

In his review of View , however, Bentley deals directly with it 
as relevant to the continuing controversy bet^^een Kazan and Miller,^ 
He contrasts the informer theme in Kazan's On the ]*.'aterfront and Miller's 
'^'^g^^' (in the former, informing is good, in the latter, bad) and is 
dismayed by a sense that "both stories seem to have been created in the 
first place largely to point up" these differing conclusions. Since he 


reads both works as efforts to support a position about an important 
contenporary theme --informing- -he notes the flaw in each as melodrama 
and, more than this, pretentious melodrama. "In both to the Waterfront 
and A View From the Bridge , truth- -life in its concreteness--is obscured 
by a fog of false rhetoric." Ihe pretensions lie in the movie's soaring 
music and the play's poetic dialogue. The problem with Miller's poetr>^ 
is that it is not, in fact, poetry, but an effort to inflate the importance 
of the play and cover its pretentiousness in "Sunday clothes," 

Bentley adds to his review of the play a discussion of Miller's 
preface to it in published foim, from which may be extracted a general 
criticism: Bentley deplores Miller's "surprising degree of isolation 
from the great debates which are the intellectual life of our time." 
That Bentley expects this level of involvement from Miller explains more 
about Bentley than about Miller and his play, but it relates directly 
to the matter of whether Miller is writing about social issues (with 
political import) or about individual problems. Although Miller says 
he wants to unite both social and psychological concerns, for Bentley 
he achieves only vagueness: "In fact, one never Ijiows what a Miller 
play is about: politics or sex." l\'henever one wants to pin Miller down 
about theme, he shifts, depending on the direction of the discussion. 

To counter this, Bentley must show the futility of the intentional 
argument (that ivhat Miller says his intentions were is what the play 
actually contains) by going to the evidence of the play and its recep- 
tion, especially by the "left" press which took View to be about inform- 
ing, regardless of Miller's published statements to the contrary. 


It is at this point that Bentley indicates, rather in the breach, that 

he neither v;ants to accuse Miller of "dis ingenuousness" nor b-ants to 

limit his view of an author's intention to conscious intention: 

Surely any play of substance lias all kinds of significance, 
including some which were no part of tlie author's conscious 
intention. , . . The large fact is that here are two men who 
have lived within the orbit of Stalinism [Kazan and Miller] , 
and here are their guilt feelings about it, outcropping in 
gigantic fantasies of self -justification. 

Sometimes the public realizes what an author means before 
he does himself. Also, his work wall take on meanings which 
he may not have anticipated: nor can all tHe meanings xvhich 
works take on later be brushed aside as irrelevancies. 9 

Bentley 's argument is that what discerning critics find in a 

work is, in fact, there, regardless of the author's statements about 

his intentions. It seems that in the case of Miller's two plays about 

guilt and informing, Bentley builds a valid interpretation of their 

relationship to the events of 1952, It would be petty, however, to 

confine the interpretation to those events, as it is at a distance 

from them (the events) that both plays increase in stature. It must 

be an indication of the greater significance of The Crucible that 

its "drama of indignation" works quite well for those who have no 

knowledge of HUAC and 1952, that its action hinges not only on the 

melodramatic conflict between conventional society and the individual, 

but also on the inner conflict of Proctor's dec is ion -making process. 

There are, in fact, multiple and complex conflicts in the play. There 

is no question hcxvever, that Bentley is correct in stating that on the 

basis of straight comparison, the play has only a limited relation to 

the case of Kazan and HUAC. 


Perhaps had Miller sijnply declared himself a Communist, Bentley 
would have reacted differently to his plays, for at least then Miller 
would have been defending a clear position. As it is, however, Bentley 
is left to speculate about Miller's stance on Communism, He must 
presume Miller to be Communist because of the plot of The Crucible , and 
this seems confirmed by the fervor of Miller's attempts to deny any 
political importance in his plays. Following this presumption comes 
Bentley 's criticism of the nature of Miller's liberalism, a sense of 
total innocence, an unrealistic look at humanity. But Bentley 's 
greatest criticism remains that of Miller's lack of honesty about his 
political position. Bentley's criticism is well taken: if the purpose 
of art is to expose the truth, then the vision of reality >liller works 
with must be examined, and it is relevant to apply Miller's play to 
contenporary life. Bentley criticizes both form and content. It is as 
though Bentley, upset that Miller has not witten the play he wished 
him to write, is further upset that he did not ivrite it better. 

Curiously, Bentley does not directly discuss in his reviews the 
conditions which more than likely force an obscurantist position on 
Miller. They are, however, present in his discussion of the overall 
absence of Communists or the reality of Communism on Broadway- -it simply 
was not allowed. But then why did Miller deny what so m.any others 
saw in his plays? One answer is the atmosphere of fear prevalent in 
the country, especially among writers and film/ theatre professionals, ar-d 
most especially among those like Miller who knew they were prime targets 
for HUAC and knew they would refuse to conply >,dth the committee- -putting 
them in a ven^ precarious professional position, Bentley could not know 
then of Miller's shifting stance on Stalinism, but Miller's hostility 
to HUAC remained firm. 



Tennessee V/illiams is another of these play^^^rights whom Bentley 
sees as hailing something inportant to say about America. He finds it 
difficult to talk about the two Williams plays he reviewed without 
giving major attention to their director, Elia Kazan. In one instance 
this is because the play, Camino Real , is so expressionistic in form 
that it needs major directing input, and in the other, Cat On A Hot 
Tin Roof, it is because the play is too radical in its vision for 
Broadway and has been altered by the vision of the director. Bentley 
sees Williams as an important but problematic writer. He relegates 
Williams' plays to the realm of "psychological drama" ■^^'hich "springs 
from fear of the Other, of Society, of the world, and from preoccupation 
with the self." This emphasis on psychology has the effect Bentley 
usually ascribes to raw neurasthenics, that in being only a partial 
depiction of man, it "tends . . . not to become art at all but to remain 
neurotic or quasi -neurotic fantasy." 

In Bentley' s view, Camino Real exemplifies the fluctuations in 
form and content that marr Williams' abilities. It takes the extra- 
ordinary formalist and theatricalist talents of a Kazan to mold this 
chaotic play into a moving theatre experience. Bentley did not like 
the play v^hen he read it "partly because it belongs to the current 
deliquescent-rococo type of theatre and even more because it seemed 
far from a brilliant example of the type." The production is therefore, 
he feels, more Kazan's work than Williams' because he did enjoy it in 
the theatre. 

-i-MtMB? u= =ariiituaM»^ 


Bentley sees both "spurious" and "genuine" elements in IVilliams' 
TOrk, generally. The spurious seems prevalent in Camino, and spurious 
elements include three things to which Bentley always objects. First, 
he dislikes Williams' style when it leaves the realistic center and 
becomes bloated and baroque: "Iflien he is poetic he is often luscious 
and high-falutin' ." Second, he deprecates Williams' thought or content 
as a regretably mishandled mixture from D. H. LawTence. Third, he some- 
times objects to Williams' choice of material (perhaps flights of 
neurotic fantasy) iv'hich can be unnecessarily grotesque and base, such as 
"the short story of the man who likes being beaten and is finally 
eaten by a negro masseur. . . , "-^^^ 

For Bentley, Camino Real (which he calls '"Camino Unreal") contains 
a considerable spuriousness, for he says it "doesn't even pretend to 
realism." Because much of the play's language is the description of 
action rather than in the form of dialogue (he knows this from reading 
the play) it appears to Bentley more a "scenario" for a theatrical ist- 
choreographic work than a drama. Bentley notes that Williams has 
argued the importance of such description of action, that "it may 
say more than words," but Bentley considers such an action meaningless 
except as given meaning by the director and actor. In Bentley 's terms, 
then, Camino is not really a play, and he therefore has little to say 
about it as such. As a piece of theatre, Bentley sees much to admire 
in the work of fCazan, in the choreography, and in the fine, close-to- 
ensemble acting. The play however, idth few "real" characters, little 
dramatic development, wildly inconsistent images, and many "solemn 
speeches" which "remain lifeless in performance," is of little interest. 


The genuine elements in Williajns relate more to the style and 
substance of Cat Oi A Hot Tin Roof . They are the realistic elements of 
language and style: "his ability to make eloquent and expressive 
dialogue out of the real speech of men and his gift for portraiture, 
especially the portraiture of unhappy women." On the genuine level, 
that is to say, Williams reacts directly to the world he observes and 
molds that ivorld into an intelligible vision which expresses it and 
his feelings about it. 

Although it is more genuine than Camino , Bentley still finds 
flaws in Cat which he feels may be attributable to the difficulties 
encountered by a wi-iter like Williams --fresh, daring, not really in 
the commercial mold- -when working on Broadway. The main difficulty 
in the play (and in Williams) seems to be fragmentation of interest, 
an inability to maintain focus, perhaps because his material and his 
point of view are too potent for Broadway. Bentley finds evidence of 
this fragmented focus and intent both in the play and, especially, in 
the treatment the director Kazan has given it. 

The play, for example, seems to hold back from the subject of 
homosexuality. Bentley says he had heard that this was to be "the play 
in wiiich homosexuality w^as at last to be presented without evasions on 
the author's part." But the play does not really deal with homosexuality, 
for although it is an early subject involving Brick and his dead friend, 
the play shifts focus to the subject of the father and his illness 
before homosexuality can be "presented." Is this the result of the 
Broadway mentality? Bentley does not even fully formulate this question, 
but it lurks, like the subject of homosexuality itself, in the back- 
ground. There is vagueness here, an uncertainty which bothers Bentley. 


Problanatic in the opposite manner are the over-siinplified 
emotions and motivations of the characters, dependent for the most 
part on "an obsessively and mechanically sexual interpretation of life" 
which Bentley does not believe stands up to much scrutiny. This ungovern- 
able ascendancy of the libido is too much for Bentley 's refined sen- 
sitivities- -and his view of reality. Isn't sex a more subjective 
experience, involving persons as well as bodies, than this play suggests? 
Is suspected homosexuality so unremittingly terrifying that a man, once 
ijTipotent, will commit suicide? "Surely the author can't be assuming 
that a man is either a hundred per cent heterosexual or a hundred per 
cent homosex-ual?" But one doesn't get a chance to ask these questions, 
says Bentley, because the play runs so rapidly over this material in 
"quick, if lengthy, narratives." He notes that ''it is characteristic 
that the plot depends for its plausibility lopon our not questioning 
that if a man and a woman come together once , a child will result." 
These are Bentley 's realistic criteria at v/ork, checking the relation 
between life and the dramatic form of the play. 

Bentley concludes that the play and the production have a "relation 
of exact antithesis," the result of a shocking collision of different 
artistic attitudes. The play is basically sordid ("sometimes too 
naturalistically sordid for the theatre") and the production is "aggres- 
sively clean," He sees the function of this disjunction as the bowdler- 
ization of a play that is probably more than the public can take- -is 
even more than Bentley \^'ould want. Bentley is no particular fan of the 


175 [ 

naturalistic portrayal of man's baser instincts, but he does not deny 
the existence of tliose instincts; he is not calling for smut, but for 
honesty. IVhat bothers him more than the making -over of the play's 
surface (it " looks wholesome; therefore it is^'") is the attemnt to 
change the play's attitude from an unacceptable pessimism to an accept- 
able optimism, mere the ''script is resolutely noncommittal, the 
production strains for commitment to some sort of edifying conclusion," 
Kazan's work on Williams' play is an example of the power of the 
theatrical to overtake the dramatic, a power which Bentley feels should 
be used cautiously. 

Bentley identifies some good wTiting in the play, Williams' 
language being consistently good, the finest in the current English- 
speaking theatre, "supple, sinuous, hard-hitting, and . . . highly 
'characterized' in a finely fruity Southern vein." The finest moment 
of the play for Bentley also relates to language, or at least to the 
lATiting, as it solidifies in a theme. It is 

a masterly piece of construction both as ivriting and as per- 
formance- -a scene between father (Burl Ives) and son (Ben Gazzara) 
in which a new and better theme for the play is almost arrived at: 
that the simple old family relationships still mean som.ething, 
that, in the midst of all the filth and incoherence and impossibility, 
people, clumsily, inconsistantly, gropingly, try to be nice to each 

Bentley praises the character of Big Daddy as Williams' "best m.ale 

character to date." 

Bentley, striving to say what the source of Williams' problems 

as a ivriter may be, identifies both a functional, authorial difficulty 

and a motivational or personality problem. As a ^^Titer, Williams' 

over-all fault has to do with a need to make his writing mean something, 


a laudable goal, but difficult to achieve by conscious effort. This 
leads him into "fake poeticizing, fake philosophizing, [and] a straining 
after big statements." Bentley sees Williams' emphasis on emotion in 
his creative method as either an evasion or a misapprehension as to the 
psychological facts: "He has said that he only feels and does not think; 
but the reader's or spectator's iiipression is too often that he only 
thinks he feels. ..." Williams seems confounded, in Bentley 's analysis, 
by the foiro/content struggle seen so many places in American drama- -the 
inability of the pla>'\\'right to handle content within the confines of 
his form and the subsequent muddle he makes of both. 

Williams' work is finally blunted by what Bentley sees as a 
quality in Williams' artistic personality, "an ambiguity of aim: he 
seems to want to kick the world in the pants and yet be the world's 
sweetheart, to combine the glories of martyrdom with the com.forts of 
success." This is a perennial problem for the artist, having both a 
psychological and financial motivation- -first, to be penetrating and 
shocking while having the public love you for it and second, to devote 
oneself to art and yet become rich and famous. It is a major difficulty 
for artists evei~)-"'where , but especially so where art and commodity are 
easily confused. 

Bentley 's final suggestion is the one he offers to any dramatist 
v.'ho strains after profundity: that Williams' must deal less with 
abstractions and more mth realities, must "take the initial capitals 
off Sincerity and Truth ... if ever his talent is to find a pure and 

».^<^._--.w,5»<!S., st.-Qa^B'iinx 


full expression." Williams has problems as a writer, but he also has 
promise. Ivliere other American playivrights turn to pure craft and 
produce "hits" as a solution to and evasion of the demanding exigencies 
of art, Williams maintains the struggle idth experience which enlivens 
his work. He has the qualities of a great talent; he cannot be dismissed, 

Problems In American Playwriting 
Bentley's reviews of the Miller and Williams plays treat them 
as serious works of art. but he is also adept at discussing plays 
which are not works of art. His reviews offer a thorough taxonomy of 
the problems of the American theatre; he ferrets out and identifies 
those approaches which make non-art or which cloud otherwise valid 
genre entertainments (for he is aware of the "art" in light comedy and 
melodrama) , 

Bentley discusses the nature of Broadv/ay realism in serious 
drama, in a review of Robert Anderson's Tea and 5>mTpathy, drawing a 
picture of the .American theatre as a fantasy factory little different 

than that of Holly\\rood, except more daring because more exclusive in 

appeal. Even though a play like Tea and S>'mpathy may be technically 

perfect in production, it is still another product of an industry 

designed to "feed the appetite for consoling fantasy" in a fairly direct 

way. The psychology behind this appetite is a human need to compensate 

for some inner sense of ^ATongness or inadequacy, whether it be felt or 

unfelt. This is part of our total need for fantasy and suggests a good 

reason for the inmense popularity of commodity entertainment. 


Great art also deals with this need, says Bentley, since it first 
produces the fantasy- -but only to break through to a greater reality, 
to transform fantasy into aesthetic material which forces new axvareness 
(in, for example, the "fantasy" of Shaw or Rrecht) . In art, the fantasy 
does not remain comfortably distanced but touches the spectator more 
profoundly. Unfortunately, this level of work is seldom seen in the 
theatre, for "the everyday theatre is nothing more than a day-dream 

IVhen theatre feeds escapist fantasy, it is romantic, even when 
it takes the fom of realism. An audience, for example, suffering 
feelings of inadequacy may project themselves into a vision of power in 
an escapist play, whereas in a realist play the inadequacy itself will 
be dealt with, worked through. Because of this, there is a vast form/con- 
tent split in much of the American theatre, where the form is realistic 
but the content is romantic/escapist. The difference between a theatre 
that pretends to realism and one which is frankly non-realist or romantic 
is precisely the former's claim to real significance. The problem with 
this false realism is that its ideas are bankrupt: "For the escape 
here is into pretended realities like idiologies and psychological 
notions and scientific fetishes." 

Bentley feels that the distorted images which feed the public 
a sense of reality without dealing with the reality shift with the times. 
In the "social" theatre of the 1930 's it vias the world of the ivorking 
class; in the 1950 's it is the world of shallow psychology, often 
represented by a homosexual or the turmoil of a supposed homosexual. 
This the ^vorld of Tea, which "is about a private -school boy l^ho is to 
lose the feeling that he is a homosexTial by proving his potency with 
the housemaster's wife." 


The formula for the drama of realist escape is to find how 
close you can come to shocking the audience with scandalous material, 
then to stop just short of dealing T\dth that material, leaving it safely 
removed. Bentley calls it "Daring as Calculated Caution. Or: Audacity, 
Audacity, But Not Too Much Audacity." Ihe pla>^^Tight mines that area, 
created by shifting or progressing m.oral consciousness, in which an older, 
more conservative view might be scandalized while a nev;er, more liberal 
one will be more accepting. He places his material into this marginal 
zone to exact maximum effect from the audience's previously -developed 
attitudes and thus creates a play that seems daring but really is not. 
It is an example, in -Pact, of knowing the audience one is -KTiting for so 
well that one is able to pull a certain level of excitement not from the 
material itself but from a pre-existing condition in the audience. 

IVhen this is done superbly, as in Tea, "a highly superior spechnen 
of the theatre of 'realist' escape," one comes right to the edge of art 
without actually crossing to it. The spectator's accepting, uncritical 
attitude toward the play is the proof that it is not art, for Bentley 
always expects the art work to cause some real turmoil: "One doesn't ask 
the questions one wuld ask of a really serious play." In Tea these 
questions are the essential ones of realism, and the boy's innocence of 
the charge of homos ex-uality is the case in point: "One doesn't permit 
oneself the thought that he may not be innocent , for he has an innocence 
of a kind the real world never supplies: an innocence complete and 
certified." Motivations of all sorts need not be followed out, since so 
much in the drama is merely accepted . The pla>-wright is in a very priv- 
iledged position because, by skillful craftsmanship, he has constructed 
a smooth, seamless, work that needn't confront the ambigijities of life. 


What makes such a play work in the theatre is excellence in 
production, the pou-er o£ actors and director to niake it all seem like 
life itself. In this case, Bentley sees the certain hiand of Elia Kazan. 
Much of the casting, acting, and direction is of such a quality that, in ■ 
stage tei-ms, the world of reality and art is occasionally reached in 
production- -but only occasionally. Nonetheless, Bentley's disappointment 
is metered: "The script is far better than most; folklore and day-dream 
are scarcely less interesting than drama; and the ivork of Elia Kazan 
means more to the American theatre than that of any current witer 

If the serious drama in Merica is often just realist escape, 
American light comedy is often marred by "an intrusion of crass senti- 
mentality," an unearned and unjustifiable emotionalism. ITiis is so, Bentley 
says, even though li :ht comedy is the most successful American fom, having 
become "one of the more vital elements of world theatre." Reviewing 
tVN-o generally worthy comedies. Oh Men! Oh, Women! by Edivard Chodorov 
and King of Hearts by Jean Kerr and Eleanor Brooke, Bentley is disturbed 
by what he takes to be a need, by the authors of both plays, to add 
another dimension beyond that of humor to their vrork.-"-^ This emotional 
new element seems ripe with a tone of moral uplift that has no place in 
the structure of the works themselves, is, in fact, an attempt to do m.ore 
T%dth the work than is necessarv^ by adding a level of meaning greater 
than is desirable: 

All of a sudden, the smile disappears, and we are invited to take 
a devout interest in the needs of children, the duties of parents, 
the responsibilities of snouses and psvcho -analysts, not to mention 
the promptings of the heart and that Note of Hope which is the 
Broadway-Holl>^^^ood surrogate for a shot in the arm. 


Bentley notes that both plays are based on the old theme of the 
professional iinposter, and the plot of each is ''one long atteinpt, on 
the authors' part, to hmianize then by humiliation." That the protagon- 
ist of the Choderov play is successfully normalized l^hile that of the 
Kerr-Brooke play is not is significant to Bentley. This places the 
latter work in a dangerous situation, since the accession to nonnalcy 
as the desired state of being is the staple of .%nerican theatre. As 
usual, Bentley is caustic about public reaction to something different, 
and he predicts that King of Hearts "will come in for criticism as being 
heterodox and heartless, if not dangerous and un-.%erican." 

Sure enough, he then quotes both Brooks Atkinson's and Wolcott 
Gibb's negative reactions to such a character, deriving from them the 
principles that 1} "a monstrous character has no place in light comedy" 
and 2) "a monstrous character has no place on stage." Bentley takes 
this opportunity to jibe at the Broadway aesthetic for its confoiTnism 
and its ignorance of the classic methodology of comedy. On Broadway 
there is little acceptance of a truly unredeemable character because 

implicit in New York journalism is a whole philosophy of drama 
according to which it is good that characters in plavs be good- -or 
at least likable; it is good that the playwright's view of life be- 
People are Nice. Sometimes this thought takes a political fom 
and might be signed up as Democratic Good Will. At other times it 
seems to be a theory^ of audience psychology. 'Ife must care about 
the characters." Well, that much is easy^to agree to, but the New 
York theory of drama is that you only care when vou also s\TBpathize--or 
m the jargon of the intellectual underivorld, "empathize."' With whom 
can you identify yourself? "l^Jho are you rooting for?" Like football. 

Yet the classic theatre is full of unsympathetic characters, and to 

redeem them in the last scene would be mechanical and a sentimentalization, 

Bentley therefore praises Kerr and Brooke for avoiding this level of 


sentimentality, for allowing their character an organic- -and very 
traditional --comic existence. He also praises the traditional method 
of acting this character by Donald Cook, ^^ho keeps his perfomance and 
the character separate so that the audience may appreciate the xvork of 
the actor while abhoring the character. 

Like sentimentality, the mechanical injection of moralizing is, 
according to Bentley, a pervasive flaw in American genre pieces. He 
praises Joseph Hayes ' The Desperate Hours as a thriller and is at least 
satisfied by the efficiency of its production. ^^ But the play's problem 
is that it has, more than good thriller ^^Titing, good intentions: 'It 
is a thriller plus junk, and solemn, moralistic, pseudo-intellectual 
junk at that." Again, the content of this "junk" involves the moral 
strength of the "Common Man," the character with whom the audience is 
apparently to eirpathize, and it has little to do with the "thriller" fom. 
It is the intrusion of preaching into the realm of commercial entertain- 
ment and must be considered a flaw. 

Likewise, Bentley points to Sidney Kingsley's Lunatics and Lovers 
as an example of how "American farce is marred by moralism. The American 
farceur may begin by thumbing his nose; he will certainly insist on 
saluting the flag in the last act." Bentley is himself no dark and 
brooding pessimist, but he finds excessive the socio-political pressure 
in .American comedy- -even in the extremes of farce- -to maintain a spirit 
of uplift. It denotes a misunderstanding of the method of farce, to act 
as though the pounding of institutions like marriage, family, and govern- 
ment common to farce are too serious an attack and can only be enjoyed if, 
at the end, the author and the characters add that they really didn't 
mean it, that it was all in good, clean fun. Bentley 's work on farce 


points out how psychologically valid the irreverence of the form is, and, 

in theatrical and dramatic terms. Lunatics and Lovers shows how Jarring 

and wrong such last minute conversions can be: "Since Mr. Kingsley has 

made us feel that the joke against respectability and sentiment is such 

a good one, we are not heartened at the discovery that he hii^iself is 

respectable and sentimental." As Bentley describes it, there is an 

almost Nietzschian transvaluation involved in farce lAereby its scurrilous - 

ness, when pure, needs neither justification nor apology: 

Limatics and Lovers has been described as a "dirty show." 
But it is also a clean show. And personally I found the 
dirt ... a good deal cleaner than the cleanness. 

The earnestness behind m.oralizing has a finished and preordained 
quality that Bentley sees as a foul addition to art and light entertain- 
ment alike. The spirit is alive in well-crafted thrillers and farces; these 
genr^ are about excitement and vitality- -even frivolousness--and can only 
be deadened by the mortifying presence of an earnest sanctity. Perhaps 
it is the continued presence of puritan piety, heavily layered into con- 
servative, post-war America, to which Bentley reacts. Ife have seen that 
he will not allow earnestness to be substituted for either value search 
or vitality. Even the traditionally moralistic melodrama, he says, 
suffers from the "odor of earnestness." HTien, even in melodrama, the 
author finds it necessary to fill out the villain with psychosocial 
explanations (always, it seems, the wTong ones) of his badness, when 
farce "must be given overtones of a pep-talk on the 'American way of life' 
or a class in civics," then the vitality of the forms is vitiated. The 
validity of genre such as melodrama and farce lies in their form, not in 
some imposed meaning. 



Bentley, searching for an example of a "current ir,elodrar.a mth 
many farcial elements and totally vrithout moral or philosophic pretension," 
offers Agatha Christie's ^Vitness for the Prosecution as such a gem. 
The problem with the .American public is that it may be deluded enough to 
think that a dose of moralism and bad ideas is more meaningful than a 
good story told with skill and wit: "If our society considers that 
wTiters like Mr. Hays make a larger contribution than witers like Mrs. 

Christie, our society cannot distinguish between earnestness and serious - 

ness, intellectuality and intelligence." Seriousness and intellect 

are not, cannot be, qualities which an author injects, as such, in a play. 

And thrillers like Witness are better for not attempting a spurious 

intellectuality. Because Christie knows this, and because she ivTites 

with real style and wit, she demonstrates a more essential intelligence. 

Bentley suggests that social forces in the background of Broadway 
commercial plays are the sources of the infusion of non-aesthetic material 
into so many routine entertainments. The Broadway audience seems to want, 
and the Broadway management in compliance gives, a certain level of 
edification to every play, as though, sensitive to the charge of shallow- 
ness, they inject meaning everywhere. It is a testament to the un- 
settling character of even genre works, ixhen they attain a level of "art," 
that they are mitigated by moralism.. 

Concentration on the audience, especially the idea of a mass 
audience, often "develops in the play^vright an interest not in persons, 
but in som.e construct of what is basically an abstraction: the average 
man. Writers try to focus on a generalized idea of the audience. 
Bentley returns many thnes to criticize the continual focus on the average, 


unremarkable man in .American theatre. In his review of Paddy Chayevsl<y's 
Mi^^ 9l Ihl iiiS^ he makes this criticism central, questioning the idea 

that the theatre's purpose is to hold up images of the comnon or average 

man. In part this point of view is an extension of his criticism of 

naturalism, of "literal transcripts of life," and In part it relates to 
the search of the artist for distinctive qualities rather than non-distinc- 
tive; art seeks in every case to transform the ordinary or average. 

The purpose for so much focus on the average man seems to Bentley 
to be the ease with which audiences recognize the ordinary- -and he 
concedes that recognition is important in drama. But the recognition 
should not stop at the surface. The idea of "average" is anathema to 
the drama. Bentley says that Chayevsky, though he elaborates the surface 
of reality capably- -especially in the form of language. -does not transcend 
the surface. He does not make the transition to drama because, though 
he develops themes, he lacks real vision, 

Chayevsky 's themes have the homebody appeal and the simplistic 
approach of journalistic advice -columns and radio talk shows, says Bentley. 
Having a theme should be something greater than the crude psychology of 
the mass media; an overall point of view should emerge from the material— 
and in Chayevsk)^ nothing emerges. He offers merely an extended image of 
common people. For this reason Bentley says that Chayevsky 's identifica- 
tion ^^rith his audience is so complete that he "doesn't even bother to 
^^Tite characters; he writes audiences. ..." It is much like the 
business world where products are not sold, but people are sold on 
products: a focus on the customer. But Tvriting idth the audience in 
mind, an "intended eulogy to average humanity," backfires because such 


writing is contrived and, though perhaps average enough, injiuman. But 
this my be enough, Bentley says, for an age of "salesmanship and con- 
fomity" where the average man seems the most desirable unit. The artist, 
however, "is interested precisely in the non-averageness of the person 
stigmatized as average," This may be something that Chayevsl<y would 
understand, since he is intelligent, but in his writing he delivers only 
"the average and not the unique, the preachment and not the truth, the 
facts and not the life of facts." 

Bentley identifies the political view behind most serious themes 
on Broadivay as a generalized and inoffensive liberalism which contai.ns 
major elements of optimism and uplift. This liberalism tends to be 
vague and good-hearted, seldom taking on issues that are controversial 
(for controversy might split audiences or cause them to be seen as some- 
thing other than a monolithic mass) . This political orthodox>' controls 
the treatment of subjects like homosexuality even when the supposed 
intention of the dramatist is to treat it squarely and humanely. 

We have seen Bentley 's implication that homose>cuality crept into 
so many plays of the 1950 's because of its innate shock value; mention 
a homosex-'aal--or accuse some heterose>aaal of the inclination- -and you 
appear to be daring even when you do not deal with the subject realis- 
tically. Bentley reviewed two plays that attempted to deal honestly 
with homosexual themes, one of which he feels was largely successful. 
In each case, he notes the effect of vague Broadway liberalism on the play. 

Ruth and Augustus Goetz, the adaptors of Andre Gide's The 
Immoral is t , put little of the novel or its author's aesthetic sensibility 


into the play, says Bentley, because their main desire was not to drama- 
tize the novel but to ivTite about homosexuality, most likely as proponents 
o£ "a more rational attitude toward it,"" He applauds this purpose but 
points out that in the end the authors' humanitarian attitude is blunted, 
even vitiated, by an uncertain or open ending to the play. Perhaps 
the public of 1954, he says, is not ready for an unexpurgated look at the 
life of a married homosexual. 

Taking the authors' purpose to be didactic, Bentley offers an 
insight into this kind of purposeful play, for it is precisely the point 
at which the authors have succumbed to the needs of the audience where 
their failure lies. Bentley says that a purpose like that of changing 
attitudes about so heated a subject as homosexuality requires a particular 
stance: the didactic playwright must si:q3pose himself ahead of the public 
so that he "can ivrite only plays that are more than the public casi take." 
Staying within the bounds, the Broadway method, cannot be the method of 
the play Bentley assumes the Goetzes wanted to ivrite. I'/hat they did 
write falls into a class of plays, similar to the realist theatre of 
escape, which he identifies as ''Broadway liberal:" 

There is a kind -'f liberalism which is safely reactionary. It 
offers you all the soft and self congratulatory emotion of refoimism 
without demanding that you run the risks. The chief trick of the 
pseudo- liberal is to fare boldly foreward toward the heroic goal, 
then to slink quietly off at the last moment in the hope that 
no one is looking. 

Since t .is play, in the end, still considers homosexuality as 
an accusation (i.e., undesirable), it does not fulfill its apparent 
purpose. The public, says Bentley, will allow the subject of homo- 
sexuality to be brought up only as long as there are no real homosexuals 


or they are washed clean of their stigma: "Our public's motto is: 
tolerance- -proidded there is nothing to tolerate." The Goetzes immasculate 
their theme and their hero by first understanding his plight, but then 
asking him to go and sin no more. This is their last-minute confomiism, 
the deus ex machina of the American theatre. Still, the shock value 
which the play does have works in its favor. Shock value, as we have said, 
is dependent on the makeup of an audience, and Bentley notes among those 
at the theatre many \\hio find the subject matter scandalous- For those 
who choose, to overlook reality, he says, the play seemr. to "work." 

IVhere The Immoralist shrinks from actually allowing a homosexual 
character his homose:cuality, Third Person, by Andrew Rosenthal at least 
admits the reality of homosexual love. In doing so, he follows 
Bentley 's call for more homosexuality in American plays; that is, the 
subject should not be dangled and then snatched back but dealt idth. 
Third Person went some of the distance toward dealing with homosexuality, 
though, to Bentley' s way of thinking, it did not go quite far enough. 
Bentley criticizes the play for lack of clinical, sexual detail while 
citing its "narrowly psychiatric" point of view as a fault. That is, 
while the play held back on certain facts about the sex lives of its 
main characters \\hich wuld have aided in clarifying their motivations 
and in presenting the real issue, "the primative sexual needs of human 
beings," it also developed no larger moral and spiritual design. By 
this, Bentley means that the play developed no greater or overall 
context, no background against which the characters' lives and the play's 
action might be interpreted. He concedes, however, that the lack of 
such a background and the very desolation of the characters' spiritual 



lives is realistic and therefore constitutes a kind of background: "His 
[Rosenthal's] richer sense of life must be implicit in his picture of 
their spiritual poverty." 

Bentley gives a more complete description of the plot of this 
play than he usually does because he hopes to show that the play's 
ending is not another corny evasion, but a realistic view of the events, 
given the natures of the characters and the situation. That the central 
character stays with his wife rather than opting to live with the beloved 
younger man is, for Bentley, a harsh reality in the face of the possibility 
of a romantic escape for the two men. In 1955, he ijnplles, m,en stay 
married to their wives regardless of their love for other men. 

That the ending is dramaturgically based on a "crude device" 
Ca m.elodramatically unanswered phone call) does not bother Bentley, for 
he sees the point as "humanly sound." The play's creaky dramaturgy is 
overcome by the extent of its seriousness, its truth to reality, and the 
quality of its "low-pitched yet intense and intelligent dialogue," Yet 
for all its honesty and intelligence, the play also has the faults associated 
with stopping short: 'IVhen one accepts the play as the serious document 
that it is, one cannot but wish that it were even more serious." Because 
of the play's evasion of the facts of the characters' sex lives, Bentley 
sees what is probably unintentional support only for non-sexual homosexuality, 
Vv'hich dulls the edge of this good play. 

In the matter of sexual candor, Bentley is only asking for honesty, 
not for the innate shock of such disclosures. He praises the direction 
of the play for its moral tone, "keeping the show clear of any possible 


charge of scurrility or even cheapness," Bentley \vants honesty sensibly 
presented, neither too coarse nor too refined. He ivants all the characters 
and their relationships clearly defined, but he does not want a play 
which deliberately sets out to shock in the easiest and nost direct way. 
The shocks which Bentley wants are those \<'hich proceed from dramatic 
situations honestly portrayed, which lead an audience into nev; awareness. 
lA'hile arguing in favor of seriousness and honesty, he argues against any 
cheapness in the form of the drama. 

One genre fom, a staple in the American theatre, generally receives 
praise from Bentley, for he is not ijnmune to the pleasures afforded by 
musical comedy. But they are limited pleasures and seldom dramatic. 
His negative reaction to the musical is seldom to the better examples of 
the form, but is to the overbloivn analyses of its importance as an art 
representative of the mind and soul of .America, Bentley criticizes the 
agrandizement of the musical, the rhapsodic praise lavished on the form 
by popular \^Titers and even some intellectuals as uniquely Merican in 
spirit and the highest achievement of, indeed, the proper form for the 
American stage. He adamantly opposes the theory that the drama should not 
be considered an important or necessary art form in this country and that, 
in the absence of a viable drama, the musical delivers a ''theatre that 

is sheer, ample, and \dthout inner tension or quarrel," an honest 

portrayal of America." Bentley certainly must question the seriousness 

of any art that is 'Vithout inner tension" and the reality such a picture 

of America could possibly encompass. 


Rather, he sees the musical as proceeding from the sentimental 
as much as the comic tradition, full of the same uplift that is liberally 
laced throughout other American genre entertainments. .And it is as a 
genre that he explains the excellence of such a muscial as Porgy and Bess: 
"a major achievement in a minor genre. "^^ Bentley's forrays into genre 
criticism, like this one, proceed with awareness that genre distinctions 
are "purely verbal." Still, such distinctions do make sense. Is it not 
more reasonable and fair he asks, to compare Porgy to the work of Sullivan 
and Johann Strauss than (as some have) to that of Mozart and Wagner? 

The musical does not escape the realistic and sociological per., 
spfctive in Bentley's criticism. As a popular and populist genre, he 
notes that the slight dramatic action in them usually depicts an idealized 
ima^e, "the meeting and mating of the common man with the common woman. "^^ 
This is the same glorification of the ordinary which he sees throughout 
.American drama. 

In the case of Porgy , Bentley criticizes the original view of the 
Negro in DuBose He>'ward's novel, a view wMch also makes its way into 
the musical. That view "is certainly close to the traditional and dangerous 
image of the negro as primative and the primative as savage." l\hen Porgy, 
therefore, commits murder and is not treated by the author in compliance 
with "the accepted code of poetic justice," it is not because of cynicism 
where this code is concerned but because of a gulf between the author and 
his subject. He>'wood's "people are not quite human beings- -they are 
likable, if not housebroken, animals, among vihom killing is not murder." 


In the translation to musical, says Bentley, Gershwin added a 
level of beauty that transformed the unconvincing prose and inauthentic 
realism of the noi^el into legendar>' folk-tale by giving the story the 
"reality of fantasy." This is a quality common to all musicals, the 
un-reality of song instead of speech indicating a \vorld of fantasy in 
every case. Like all musicals, the focus of the theatrical experience 
of Porgy is not so much on the events as it is on the pleasing form of 
the music, what Bentley calls the "power of musical comedy as a convention." 
In musicals we have not a vision of reality but the Romantic vision of 
unreality made formally acceptable by music. We do not have a completed 
action or a "tragic or comic whole" because "the tradition of the 
musical is not that of music drama [opera], it is that of operetta, 
vaudeville, and review. ..." Therefore, the form tends to arrange its 
effects cumulatively rather than developmental ly, as in the drama, and 
for Bentley "the emulative effect" of Porgy "is not more impressive than 
it is exhausting and benumbing." 

Bentley 's acceptance of the musical is based, then, on a hard look 
at its limitations as a fomi combined vdth a pleasurable reaction to its 
surface and stirring presentation of engaging perfoimers" comedians 
like Bert Lahr, Phil Silvers, and Stanley Holloway; performers like Rex 
Harrison, Julie Andrews, and Cab Calloway. For him, the musical is 
stranded as a genre; it cannot become a serious form. 


Innova tion on the American Staqe 
Tliere are three good reasons to focus here on Bentley's review 
o£ Waiting for Godot , even though the play is not American. First, 
his reviexv^ does include a lengthy analysis of the .American critical 
scene and background to the production in New York. Second, an impressive 
amount of Bentley's theory is brought to bear on the play and his judg- 
ment of it. Third, Godot was really the only new tiling to come along 
during the four years that Bentley wote weekly criticism, and so his 
reaction to it is a kind of test case for his theoi^'. As testament 
to the general adequacy of Bentley's viev-points , he did not "miss" 
this play which has become the one aclcnowledged masterpiece to have 
appeared, suddenly, in New York in the mid-1950 's. 

Bentley's review is divided into two parts, an examination of the 
critical and philosophical climate into which the play appeared, and a 
critique of the play and its production. ^'^ The first part is an account 
of the emotionalism involved in the "highbrow/lowbrow" division in 
American society and culture and its effect on the arts and on criticism. 
Bentley notes that highbrow serious ^^Titers are either bought or boycotted 
by lowbrow popular culture (he mentions Faulkner's pseudonymous stint in 
Hollywood) , but the lowbrow taste-makers are full of resentment of the 
highbrow i-viiich creates unconscious guilt, and the "resultant disorder 
could scarcely be greater." Bentley himself is pulled into this conflict: 
he is often attacked by both lowbrows and highbrows, which suggests that 
his critical stance is at least flexible, based on facts and not on prior 
definitions and emotional responses. 


And yet, he says, vjhen a play like Waiting for Godot is announced 
in the New York Times to be for intellectuals he is fairly certain how 
the daily critics will react to it and is himself 'propelled into 
\\iTiting a defense of the play as if by its success or failure civilization 
would stand or fall." The emotional force of the cultural struggle can 
affect even Bentley. 

General critical reaction to Godot came about much as Bentley 
had suspected, for critics, like the public at large, are split about 
fifty-fifty for and against intellectuality, Yet he notes a difference in 
that while one group was "prepared to be respectful towards what was not 
fully understood, the second joined Mr. Kerr in finding something of a 
scandal in the ver)- existence of difficulty." It is clearly Walter Kerr 
whom Bentley wishes to debunk, for Kerr represents an attitude- -"the 
anti-intellectualism of an intellectual"- -which Bentley finds especially 
distasteful. Bentley considers Kerr, who is not merely simple-minded, a 
worthy adversar}^ for debate and argumentation. 

The attitude to^\'ards Godot and life which emerges from the critical 
responses of Kerr and company- -Bentley calls it "one of the big ideas of 
the twentieth century" --is that "it is best to be a simple soul because 
we live in a simple universe." That is, they criticize Beckett for making 
the simplicity of life complex and difficult, Bentley quotes Kerr's 
specific contention that Bert Lahr's ability to touch the simple truths 
that grow out of good entertainment is superior to Beckett's overwrought, 
inauthentic intellectualism. Bentley is aghast at this suggestion that 
"the superior insight of genius is unnecessar}'," that all the theatre 
needs is "constant communion T\dth the man of non-distinction," 


Bentley leaves his critique o£ Kerr at this point, noting that the 
highbrow/ lowbrov/ conflict stands apart from the play itself, which poses 
its own. problem for audiences, that of "nausea as a plavwTight's conscious 
attitude to life," He then presents a psychological and philosophical 
analysis of pessim.istic nausea and its relation to art. This leads 
to an analysis of the nature of comedy and, specifically, comedy in 

Nausea may be the attitude or position of the playwright, says 
Bentley, but Nietzsche points out that "the humor which provides amuse- 
ment is precisely ... a victoiy over nausea." That nausea is a major 
element in the background of much comedy is a fact v.hiich took the analyses 
of psychologists like Krafft-Ebing and Freud to point out, One function 
of humor is to "camouflage" a powerful critique of society. Bentley 
notes that "in this way, the humorist staves off punishment for his 
aggression," receiving, however, a "substitute pimishment: to be dis- 
counted as unimportant." In addition, society is generally unwilling to 
accept the critique behind the hi: nor as serious, society's way of not 
facing the aggression of the comic. Even in (or perhaps moreso in) 
an obviously aggressive comedian like W. C. Fields, Bentley says, audiences 
delude thonselves into thinking that the attack on bourgeois values is 
not really serious. In fact, it must appear not to be serious in order for 
the humor not to turn into outright aggression. 

Bentley turns this analysis of comedy on the American scene: since 
American culture is prodigeously optimistic, its nausea is more buried 
than the European variety. America is swathed in optimism, and 


If the conscious "thought" of "serious" literature and drama be^ 
comes more insistently "positive," a nation's humor, arising from 
the depths of discomfort, repression, and guilt, will become more 
and more destructive. 

This is the condition behind the disparity between bouyant ".American 
confidence" on the one Iiand and "blackly despondent . . . .American 
cynicism." But since Americans refuse to openly acknowledge this fact, 
there is great "loathing and fear of any more conscious t^rpe of pessimism" 
like that which comes from Europe, particularly France. 

Bentley is him.self lifted by the concrete optimism of American 
pragmatism, but his is a philosophical leaning and not a sweeping dogma, 
need, or religion. He sees the general optimism in American society as 
somewhat deranged, in excess of the facts: America is neurotic in its 
obsessive optimism. Into this atmosphere comes a play calculated, it 
seems, to cause tumoil. Bentley 's analysis of the American climate 
suggests that many would hate the play out of hand, that some would revere 
it with almost equal fervor. Bentley 's criticism suggests that he does 
neither, though he may be somewhat influenced by his stance against Kerr 
to admire the play. He analyzes Godot on the basis of its qualities. 
His analysis is astute, identifying much about the background 
philosophy, content, and form of Godot which an additional twenty-five 
years of analysis have probed in the process of conferring on the play 
the status of a masterpiece. Godot has most of the qualities Bentley 
looks for in a play, except for an ultim,ately realistic style and a 
clear, dialectical progression. 


Bentley sees that Godot is not merely influenced by a philosophy, 
but is impelled by a pei-^asive philosophical point o£ view, for he calls 
the play the "quintessence of 'existentialism'" and offers a lucid, 
concise definition of this bleak method of viewing the world: exis- 
tentialism is 

a philosophy which underscores the incomprehensibility, and 
therefore the meaninglessness, of the universe, the nausea 
which man feels on being confronted with the fact of existence, 
the praiseworthiness of the acts of defiance man may perform--' 
acts which are taken, on faith, as self -justifying, while, 
rationally speaking, they have no justification because thev 
have no possibility of success. 

Notably, he does not criticize this point of view- -he has already 
suggested the possibility of conquering the ver>^ nausea inherent in 
existentialism (and much else) through art, Also, the practical results 
of an existentialist belief, man's need to bring value into the universe 
through his own actions, are similar to Bentley 's pragmatism. 

It is clear from Bentley 's general theory of drama that the form 
of Godot , which he calls "tmdramatic but highly theatrical," deviates 
from his ideal, "Essential to drama, surely, is not merely situation 
but situation in movement, even in beautifully shaped movement." Yet 
Godot, like many other modernist plays, has a deliberately chosen non- 
dramatic form he calls "t^vo strips of action . . . laid side by side 
like railway tracks." Bentley says there cannot be any drama because 
"the author's conclusion is that the two days are the same." I believe 
he is aware that this condition is what Beckett is dramatizing. Change 
is accounted for in the "play-within-the-play" says Bentley by the worsen- 
ing fortunes of Pozzo the Master, change apparently limited to a pitiful 
situation becoming more pitiful. 


Bentley identifies the theatrical style of the play, largely 
that of vaudeville and cloivn show, as the reason for its wide recognition. 
The form of the lowbrow entertainment has fascinated highbrow \vTiters 
for some time, he says, but this is its first successful entry into art. 
The credit given to Lahr for the "rich" clo^m characterization is not his 
alone, but is largely due to Beckett's formulation of the specifics 
of that role. 

Bentley concludes that Godot is an "important" play because 
Beckett has unified form and content in a manner which is new, and 
through this unification has more concretely given presence to the 
existentialist view in the theatre. His personal reaction, however, was 
not that of "revelation" or "sheer greatness," The reason he gives for 
this is that Beckett's "voice," though interesting, seems to be a 
repeat of so much else, not quite individual, a pastiche. Though the 
fact is external to the work itself, he notes that Beckett is perhaps 
over- influenced by Joyce, I would further speculate that Bentley 's own 
reaction to the play may have been blunted by his awareness of form, 
by the fact that the fonn is not fully realistic. The lack of a full 
presentation of social context in the play may have hampered full apprecia- 
tion. He is axs/are that this is a new kind of play, philosophical yet 
concrete, theatrical yet not formalist. He seems able to deal with it 
more directly through his intellect than through his perceptions or 


The play contains the essential quality which Bentley considers 
necessary: "the sense o£ a unified and intelligible image of life," 
Bentley therefore defends the play against any charge of undue obscu- 
rity- -it is obscure only "as any rich piece of ^\Titing is obscure," 
so that further "meanings . . . will disengage themselves in tine. . , . " 
The image of life is delivered in.concrete detail, and he therefore also 
defends it against the charge of "excessive symbolism," noting that the 
"chief relationships . . . [are] so concrete that abstract interpreta- 
tions are wholly relegated to the theatre lobby. He gives us, not 
tenents, but alternatives seen as hvmian relationships. ..." The play 
is neither too abstract nor too removed from life. 

Bentley relates the reason that so many conflicting "ansAvers" 
can be found in the play, religious, anti-religious, et cetera, to what 
he takes to be Beckett's stance. He puts Beckett in that large class 
of writers who "retain religious impulses and longings, but have lost 
all religious belief," which accounts for a large amount of religious 
symbolism in the play and its religious flavor. Beckett ivrites then, 
not as an athiest but rather as a sceptic, and it seems that this openness 
of view is what Beckett wants. People err, says Bentley, when they assume 
Beckett to have taken one specific stance for or against religion. This 
is to say, I believe, that for Bentley Godot achieves, if not the 
dialectic of moral/ethical search \^/hich he admires in Ibsen, at least a 
moral/ethical presence in which the individual spectator, like the 
individual generally, may make decisions based on a concrete appreciation 
of the situation (as seen by Beckett) of life. 


In discussing the production, which he finds very good, Bentley 
extends his view of the nature of the play. He calls the actor who 
played Pozzo "miscast" because he "gave us a playful stage villain 
instead of a stomach -turning real one," \vhich indicates Bentley's feeling 
for the need for realism in the production. There is something grotesque 
and horrible about the Pozzo-Lucky scenes of the play, perhaps, and 
they should oe emphasized as distinct from the clo\~m and vaudeville 
style of the bums. 

He stresses the fact that Beckett's play was in no way "saved" 
by Bert Lahr's comedianship. The comic instincts developed by Lahr 
over many years on the lowbrow stage did, however, allow him to move 
naturally and easily into the style of the play, bringing a largely 
created style to bear on the role, fitting into it comfortably. E.G. 
Marshall, on the other hand, had to create his role whole cloth, as it 
were, and thus the effort remains visible. Lahr's clown is the "perfect 
execution" of the author's intentions, filling out the idea of the 
pla>T^Tight. At the same time, the playwTight gave Lahr such exquisite 
material that it "made him larger and richer than he had been, perhaps 
ever, before." The poetic repetition of "Like leaves,'" for example, 
so beautifully delivered by Lahr, can become poetic only by "preparation 
in the dialogue itself," Thus, Bentley sees no disjunctive meeting of 
the opposites (intellect and instinct, perhaps) in the production, but 
a conjunction of complementary impulses which make theatrical sense in 
presenting a carefully prepared drama. 


Bentley is clearly impressed A.;ith the language of the play and 
wants to see it rendered. He therefore criticizes Alvin Epstein's first- 
night performance as Lucky for throwing away the long speech parodying 
Catholic philosophy, a fault ivhich had been corrected by the second 
performance. On the other hand, he says that he would have "lopped off 
the last part of the first act and cuts where the "dialogue stumbles." 
That the entire play ivas performed as written, hov/ever, impresses him, 
since "reverence toward a script is a good fault and, on Broadway, an 
unusual, almost exemplary one." 

In a like manner, he praises the overall care that the director 
Herbert Berghof gave the play, leaving a personal imprint without re. 
course to a stock of tricks, an imprint "subtly interfused" with the 
texture and mood of the play and not residing merely in blocking and 
business. l\Tiat Berghof gave the play became more evident when Bentley 
later saw a French production i\'hich had been overseen by Beckett himself. 
This production lacked the sense of a director's work, and the comic 
element, vast in both the play and in the New York production, was lack- 
ing in Paris: "It was avant-garde and existentialist theatre with a 
vengeance: everyone was having a marv^elous time being miserable. "^^ 

The Paris production did reinforce Bentley 's feeling that Lahr 
and Marshall were miss-matched in the New York production, that Vladimir 
is as "weighty" a role as Estragon, Having Vladimir older than Estragon 
(rather than the other way around in New York) works better, he thinks 
"for then Vladimir's philosophizings can be characterized as a little 
senile, which prevents them being solemn and tendencious."" 


Bentley's ai\'areness of the importance of this bellwether play, 
and his explanation of that importance, is a credit to the broad cap- 
abilities of his theor>'. He recognizes the play's worth in its concrete 
closeness to lived experience, yet recognizes that the play cannot be 
traditionally dramatic because the dialectic of drama (conflict and 
resolution) does not reflect the play's particular view of the world. 
Bentley concludes that Beckett, in finding a theatrically viable form 
for his particular existentialist view, has created something new and 


1. Subtitle to !\liat ^s Theatre ? 

2. Bentley, What , p. x. 

3. Bentley, Event , p. 90. 

4. Bentley, "The Missing Communist," in What, pp. 165-72, 

5. Unless othenvise indicated, references to The Crucible 
from Bentley, "The Innocence of Arthur Miller," in Event , pp. 90-4. 

6. This is amply evident in his book of selections from the 
HUAC records, Thirty Years of Treason , (New York: Viking Press, 1971). 
Bentley's view of the Committee is unremittingly negative, while his 
feelings for witnesses like Elia Kazan are tempered with s>Tnpathy for 
their plight. Like many others heavily influenced by Marx, Bentley 
separates Marxism, and Socialist philosophy generally, from the 
repressive practices of the Soviet government and Joseph Stalin. 

7. Bentley, What, pp. 222-4. 

8. Unless otherwise indicated, references to A View from, the 
Bridge from Bentley, "On the Waterfront," in Wiat, ppT 9FT02T~ 

9. Ibid., p. 223. 

„i>iMbMa|fo«w«~Mfu>#T|Ui«>^t — gffiM-^'-'Mii -T|i,_-" w^::*s=i,j.i-:A<iu g r_jTira,M Mii>««*l^>ut= 


10. Years later Bentley clarified his position on Miller: "I 
felt that there was cryptic communism in Arthur Miller's playwriting, 
which some people took to mean I was attacking him for being' a communist: 
but I was attacking him for not being open. It later turned out that 
the actual truth was more complicated than that even, that he was chang- 
ing his mind by then, from one view of communism to another, but trying 
to do it privately." Bentley, "Portrait of the Critic as a Young 
Brechtian," p. 7. 

11. Bentley, Event , p. 259. 

12. Ibid ., p. 107. 

13. Ibid. 

14. Ibid., pp. 108-110. 

15. Ibid., p. 107. 

16. References to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof from Bentley, "Tennessee 
William.s and New York Kazan," in V.Tiat , pp. "53^63. 

17. References to Tea and Sympathy from Bentley, "Folk- 
lore on Forty-Seventh Street," in Event ,' pp. 149-53. 

18. References to Oh Men! Oh, Women ! and King of Hearts from 
Bentley, "l^Tio Are You Rooting For?^ in EArent , pp7T2"6^. 

19 . References to The Desperate Hours and Lunatics and Lovers \ 
from Bentley, "But Junk is Junk," in IVhat, pp. A5^, ~ I 

20. Ibid., p. 46. ! 


21. References to Middle of the Night from Bentlev, "How Not 
to Write an Audience," in l\ , pp. 117-21. 

22. References to The Immoral is t from Bentley, "Homosexuality " 
in Event , pp. 205-8. ' 

23. References to Third Person from Bentley, '^larriage, 1955," 
in IVhat , pp. 103-6. 

24. Bentley quotes George Beiswanger in Thinker, p. 238. 

25. References to Porgy and Bess from Bentley, "A Maior Masical," 
in Event , pp. 111-14. 


26. Bentley, l^Tiat, p. 133. In his review o£ fV Fair Ladv 
Bentley questions whether this need be so. ^ ^' 

27. Unless otherwise indicated, references to Waiting for 
Godot from Bentley, "Undramatic Theatricality," in l\hat , pp. T48-58. 

28. Ibid ., p. 231. 

29. Ibid. 


Basic to Eric Bentley's theory of the drama is a vision of the 
world as natural, pluralistic, and susceptible to man's rational 
efforts to create value and meaning. This empiricist, himanist, and 
progressive view, canmon to both pragm.atism and Mar>ism, sees the world 
not in terms of abstractions and rational systems, but in terms of 
facts and concrete situations. It is within each situation encountered 
that man finds value. Value is not an individual property, but is tied 
to a relationship among the various members of the human collective. 
Bentley uses the cell -organism analogy to suggest the relation between 
individual and society: it is one of interdependence whereby the cells 
(individuals) should not develop independently of the good of the 
organism (collective). 

This general view of the world and humanity is based on a concep- 
tion of man as whole and healthy in relation to himself and to other men. 
But two factors mitigate against this view and complicate the search 
for value in the world. First is the insight Freud gives into the nature 
of man's self -understanding and his knowledge of others --which suggests 
that one of the hardest things man can do is to know liimself and take 
reasonable acco-unt of others. Second is Bentley 's analysis of society, 
which he sees as fragmented and divided. Hen are split from their oivn 
true natures. Therefore, man's search for value is deterred by the 



pressures of society and by his o^vn willingness to accept value systems 
which, because they tend to ossify and become dogmatic, can only be a 
P^^^ °f "the truth. Bentley sees modem, bourgeois culture as especially 
prone to cause man to deviate from a search for truth and value and into 
habits and conventions that answer man's ijnmediate needs but tend to 
separate hijn from himself and from others, especially where the cooperative 
responsibility for society (as opposed to competitive interest in self) is 

Bentley therefore adopts the Marxist attitude towards bourgeois 
culture, that it is an assault on vitality and humanity, and with this 
the M^irxist view of art, that it can and should be a corrective to the 
general social situation. Succinctly stated, art has a different status 
in bourgeois and socialist cultures: "For a middle-class state, art is 
a luxury, when it is not an investment; for a socialist one, it is the 
indispensable sign of the reintegration of a fragmented, alienated 
existence." This analysis, it must be noted, is not unique to Marxism, 
for it has always been apparent to those who value art highly that its 
effects run deep into the values of a society. Art is a realm for dealing 
with values concretely, says Bentley, and this is in itself enough to 
begin to revitalize the human being, to make him aware of his own human 
potential. Integrating man with himself and society, making man whole 
again, bringing things alive: these are qualities of art which are 
revered by more than Marxist commentators. 

Bentley 's view is that art must spring from the whole man and not 
from any single part. It is also part of his desire to erase dualities 
and be inclusive rather than exclusive. Art and drama must, therefore, 


include the intellectual and the emotional, pleasure and learning, 
intensified experience and a sense of truth about that experience. 
Art in general, and drama especially, is formed to give an intense and 
pleasurable experience- -since an awakening to life, however shocking, 
is always a pleasure. There is much man can learn from the experience, 
and it will affect both his emotions and his intellect. 

According to Bentley's way of thinking, the artist is an exemplary 
human being in that he is self -motivated to search for values that bring 
awareness of the expressive and meaningful (human) nature of the world. 
He struggles with experience and that struggle is expressed, along 
with the experience, in the art he creates. Pie forms an account of 
experience in such a way that the chaos of life is set apart and ordered 
in such an intelligible manner, that others may encounter the specifics 
of his search. The artist has an essential curiosity about life and the 
audacity to challenge the conventional. The art he makes, therefore, 
is basically subversive to existing systems in that it asks questions, 
accepts little on faith, and looks for the l^'hole truth that is seldom 
encompassed in single systems. 

Bentley concludes that the art of the drama is in an especially 
good position to perfoim the function of vitalizing and integrating 
a fragmented society in that "high theatrical art is more accessible 

to the new untrained audiences than perhaps any other high art v.hatso- 

ever." This is because of the directly realistic style which he sees 

as proper for drama: the performed drama, of all the arts, deals most 

directly with the essence of lived reality because its materials. 


language and men, are one with its human subject matter. The candid 
presentation of the real v/orld (social reality) is right for the 
drama and offers a specific image of life. 

Bentley's major interest is in the content of the drama, the 
view of life which comes through the play, but content must be wedded 
to a form. In the realistic drama the form/content relationship 
focuses on conflict situations which are dra-KTi from reality, the 
personal or social life of man. These conflicts are the source of 
moral/ethical ideas in drama, since the forces in conflict are ideally 
representative of the greater moral conflicts of life. 

Because the progression of the play seeks to resolve conflict, 
Bentley calls this central foiui/content fusion a dialectic. Dialectic 
is the manner of the dram.a through which the playv^Tight v;orks in order 
to discover the value of a particular situation, The dialectic is not 
to be a pre -determined statement about life, but must be a true working 
out, since the play develops on the Aristotelian, organic model where 
characters have their o\m lives within an action which is not manipulated 
to an end, but grows to its o\m completeness. 

Beauty resides in both form and content for Bentley, which is 
to say it is engaged \-irith life and society. The expressive quality 
of drama is United with beauty, ^Aich is not merely an elegant and 
removed sense of form, but a view of life in its detail. The well- 
fonp.ed does not m.ean the ideal, but an expressive vision of the real. 
Much of what might be considered ugly is transformed into beauty by its 
power to express a vision of life. Beauty, then, is not passive or 
gorgeous; it is active and engaged. 


Although it is an image of the real, drama as art seeks to achieve 
some distance from the dramatic as it appears in life. Drama is not 
life but a vision of life, enhanced and transformed into art. Its 
purpose is to put life in perspective and give a particular hind of 
experience, vivid and complete, vhich reflects life but is actually 
found in very limited quantity in life itself. Because modem man 
is cut off from life, modern art tends to be a vigorous expression of 
values from life designed to break through to the human center. Drama 
should not attempt to break through directly, by shock effect or by 
attempting to directly cross the barrier between art and spectator. 
Crossing this barrier destroys the attitude of distance bet^.'/een the 
spectator and the material . This attitude allows the spectator to 
establish a much more intimate and personal contact with the drama, one 
tinged with awareness of the quality of art as well as the relation- 
ship to life. This is, for Bentley, a reflective state i\'here the 
spectator is able to both become intimately involved in an experience 
and, at the same time, to retain some perspective on it, 

Bentley 's emphasis on content over form transfers to the produc- 
tion of the play, where the play becomes content- -with the suggestion of 
a form inherent in it- -and the arts of theatrical presentation become 
the physical form it takes. Bentley, already suspicious of form when 
it appears without content, is aware that the elements of theatrical 
production can be pleasing and potent to audiences, even in the absence 
of plays that have real value, For this reason his focus is on the play 
and its content rather than the undeniable power of the actor, the director, 
and the design of the stage milieu. 


Bentley of course sees the art in the arts of the theatre. All 
the theatre artists are involved, as is the pla}^vright, in forming 
an expressive medium. The work of the actor is perhaps most difficult 
and most crucial, for the actor is the linJc between play and production. 
The actor, unique among the arts, works very closely with his own person- 
ality, which is to be washed of purely personal characteristics in order 
to create aesthetic material. He also must be unusually open, identify- 
ing mthin his own character the possibility of portraying other 
characters. This process is so complex and unresponsive to direct 
control by the rational faculty that Bentley simply calls it intuitii-e, 

Tl:ie director and the designer also work as artists, not on the 
chaos of life, but on the already-formed material of the play to give 
it a physical, stage image. Their work is not mechanical because they 
have much to discover in their ovm media, space, time and motion, 
Bentley especially deplores fomalism in directing, but he allows and 
admires the mixture of the realistic and the symbolic/expressive that 
characterizes the best American stage design. 

These are the main features, led by a conviction that the play 
has an important content or meaning to communicate, that Bentley brings 
to his analysis of the American theatre. His critique of .Anerican 
drama is based in large part on its position as a commodity for commercial 
consumption. It does not deal with value or vitality through a m.eaning- 
ful play, but accepts the status quo and is actually hostile to the nature 
of true art. Even in the vital genre forms of melodrama and farce, 
where a desire to deal with violence, to act out supressed desires. 

th'*V^ ^ '— U^fs 


and to criticize the moral norms o£ society is prevalent, Merican 
theatre tends to mitigate these qualities with sentiment and moral ism. 
Within his criticism of .%ierican theatre, then, lies a criticism of 
.American society, even when the plays themselves do not focus on social 
problems. In fact, it is the lack of serious focus on such problems 
that forms the basis of Bentley's critique. 

As a conprehensive theory of drama, Bentley's has its limitations, 
Generally, however, he points them out in advance. One limitation 
is a lack of interest in the search of the avant-garde formalists whose 
inner search and abstract fomal search lack the element of content 
and remain removed from the intellect and understanding, Bentley calls 
this the "other" school, some elements of which he incorporates into 
his oivn theory, but whose extreme stance, at the point of formalism 
and loss of social responsibility, he disavoxvs. He cannot accept, 
for example,Artaud's attack on the rational: art for him is irrational. 
Bentley can take some of Artaud "with a grain of salt" but his theories 
are not ultimately acceptable to Bentley, Bentley relies on definition 
to mark the lijnits of his theatre. Drama has the qualities mentioned 
above; other forms, which may be valid, are not actually dram.a. They 
may be music-drama, dance-drama, musical -choreographic pieces, and the 
like, but they are not to be considered within the confines of his 
theory, notwithstanding its breadth. 

But search at the edges of realism has never been a significant 
part of the American theatre, which has remained, at least until the late 
1960 's, basically realistic in form (if not, as Bentley points out, 

■••«>iifttf I f*i»— • T 


in content) . l\'hat Bentley brought to the American theatre was a critical 
attitude and an approach to a theor>^ of realism unlike any that was 
then ccmmonly applied to American plays. American theatre was full of 
pretension, and in a generally bleak landscape, much that was only 
mediocre or good was lauded as great art- -a fact which several decades 
of perspective have confirmed, The craftsmanship in American theatre 
was good and quality craft works were the staple of Broadway . . . but 
was it art? No one seemed to be asking this question, at least not 
openly, till Bentley came to stir matters up. This is why Bentley's 
important work seemed especially significant. It was strong and it was 
negative, and both those factors brought him to the public eye. Ke 
had something controversial to say, and there is a certain excitement 
in controversy. 

Fortunately for Bentley, he was also right, or at least seemed 
to be right to enough people, for his importance as a critic was widely 
heralded early in his career, despite some detractors, He became 
important because he was among the first to speak out about the state 
of -American theatre, though i-vfet he did was by no means revolutionary 
in content. He took the, by then, relatively established tough and 
critical view common to literary criticism and applied it to the dramia. 
He began from the premise that dram:atic works could be seen as a part of 
culture, could be a "repository of values," and this view was immediately 
accessible to one part, at least, of the academic community for whom the 
intellectual analysis of literary works and other art works was a fact 
of life. 


Having opened the door, Bentley kept it open with hard work. 
The sheer amount he published was important in keeping his name evident 
in the relevant publications, and his ability to re-publish enabled 
him, in a sense, to carve out a reading public for his works. Kis 
"search" for theatre gave him time for groirth and new experience, his 
stint at the New Republic a regular forum. And his constant exemplifica- 
tion of his theory in the specific works he translated, published, and 
propagandized supported in a concrete way his ideas. It was not so 
abstract to call one thing bad ■l^hen he could offer another specific 
thing as good. Through his work with Brecht and others his ideas 
reached a larger audience than that of the New Republic . 

During the late 1960 's Bentley lost interest in drama. "^ It was 
a time in which all the things he disliked in "serious" theatre flour- 
ished; anti-intellectualism, anti-culture, and anti-drama v:ere ascendent 
movements. The rise of Artaudian theories, self-expression, reinter- 
pretation of texts for their "essences," the play as pretext, the 
relegation of the play to the status of "script," the articulation of 
the concept of theatre as theatre (not as a form for the presentation 
of the drama} --all of this kept Bentley out of the theatre. Combined 
with the rise of a theatre, begun in the 1950 's, which saw life itself 
as unconnected, inchoate, and meaningless, there was a great challenge 
to Bentley' s view of both the world and dramatic art. 

According to Bentley 's theory, however, theatre will return to 
its realistic center, which may have happened in the 1970 's (as a 
testament to the validity of Eentley's point). The ivork of Shepard, 


Rabe, and perhaps Mamet is close to the realistic center, though it is 
a realism influenced by the central ambiguity of Beckett and Pinter. 
It is possible that the American theatre has benefitted from some anti- 
intellectual freshness. Certainly the dominant theories of today center 
more directly on intuition, rather than on rationality, as the source 
of art. The work of Polanyi and newly-discovered dual -brain con- 
sciousness systems (right and left hemisphere thinking) has had an 
effect on dramatic theory that Bentley could not have forseen. His 
study of intuition is relatively superficial. 

Bentley has, and had, however, a crucial historical perspective 
in his criticism. Such a perspective is less fruit-"ul today, Kis 
touchstones were Ibsen, Shaw, Pirandello, Brecht--pla>'wrights who offered 
full conceptual models of man in society. Judged against these, play- 
wrights like Sherwood Anderson- -once considered just below Aeschylus 
and O'Neill, now almost forgotten- -are relatively easy targets. Bentley's 
critical theory seems caught at the point of these historical touch- 
stones. They were good examples of a theory used to judge Arthur 
Miller, but they seem less relevant to Harold Pinter. 

This is to say that Bentley \vas a quintessential critic for his 
time. His theory, his philosophy, may be less relevant in its specifics 
today, but in general it may show the center to vh.ich drama inevitably 
returns . 



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2. Bentley, Commitment , p. 145. 

3. Bentley interview. 

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Donald H. CunninghaTn xvas bom in Alabama in 1945 and traveled 
widely, as a young child, with his military family. He went to high 
school in Daytona Beach, Florida, and graduated with a B. A. in Classics 
from Florida Presbyterian College in 1966. After two years in the 
Peace Corps in Chile, he returned to earn an M. A. in Theatre at the 
University of Minnesota in 1970. He taught in and administered a 
program of adult basic education at Miami-Dade Community College, 
1970-73, where he did v.'ork in counseling and psychodrama and ran a 
workshop in dramatics at the Miami City Jail. He returned, in 1974, 
to begin work on a Ph. D. in Theatre at the University of Florida. 
He taught theatre at Saint Leo College in 1976-77 and at Eckerd College 
in 1977-80 where he was Discipline Coordinator, 1978-80. He has acted 
and directed in both academic and professional theatre. 


I certify that I haA;-e read this study and that in in>^ opinion 
it confom-is to acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is 
fully adequate, in scope and quality, as a dissertation for the degree of 
Doctor of Philosophy. 

Green, Chairman 
As'sociate Professor of Theatre and 

I certify that I have read this study and that in my opinion 
it conforms to acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is 
fully adequate, in scope and quality, as a dissertation for the degree of 
Doctor of Philosophy. 



J. Frazer o" 


Winifred Ji. Frazer 
Professor of English 

I certify that I have read this study and that in my opinion 
it conforms to acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is 
fully adequate, in scope and quality, as a dissertation for the degree of 
Doctor of Philosophy. 


/David L. She 1 ton'' ' 
Associate Professor of Theatre 

I certify that I have read this study and that in m>^ opinion 
It conforms to acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is 
fully adequate, in scope and quality, as a dissertation for the decree 
of Doctor of Philosophy. 


lomas B, Abbott 
Professor of Spee:ch 


This dissertation was submitted to the Graduate Facidty of the 
Department of Speech in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and 
to the Graduate Council, and \vas accepted as partial fulfillment of 
the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosphy. 

June, 1981 Dean for Graduate Studies and Research